Category Archives: happiness

Cultivate memories deliberately

How much can we influence the memories that come upon us unexpectedly or the ones that we bring up when we reflect?

Sometimes, in the middle of washing the dishes, I remember standing on a footstool in my mother’s kitchen and washing the dishes there; she’d taught the three of us sisters to handle different stages of the dish-washing assembly line. I can see what prompted that memory. The connection is easy to understand. Other times, I’m not sure what drew me back to a time or place I’d forgotten. Some memories make me smile. Others remind me where I could’ve done better.

I’ve been thinking about long-term happiness, experiences, and memory. I imagine that at eighty or ninety years old, you’d want to have plenty of good memories. What’s worth paying attention to? What’s worth creating experiences for? How can you smooth the edges of rough memories and intensify good ones?

Here are some of my thoughts about the memories I want to cultivate through attention and understanding.

2015-01-31 What's worth remembering -- index card #memory

2015-01-31 What’s worth remembering – index card #memory

I’d like to remember, clearly and distinctly, the things that contribute to happiness: connection, mastery, triumph, little moments of joy. How can we get better at things like that? Paying close attention, and creating the situations where these memories can arise.

I’d like to remember the storms – not to dwell on them, not to feel a victim, but to remember that they’re temporary and that we’ve weathered them in the past. (No Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for me!) I don’t write as much about these (in public, or even in my journals), but that doesn’t mean I don’t think of them from time to time. By not writing about them, though, I miss out on the opportunity to make sense of them, to fit them into a coherent narrative that helps me move forward.

I’d like to remember the things that will help me make better decisions: ideas, assumptions, consequences, lessons learned. Since it can be hard to remember details and one’s mind is often tempted to rewrite things more favourably, writing about these things is a good way to extend my understanding over time.

I have a lot of mental clutter. The time in school I wanted to experiment with fixing a memory with intense clarity, choosing (of all things!) the speckled ceiling to focus on. Many embarrassing moments, like the time a friend teased me for having mispronounced “adolescent” in a moment of inattention. Every moment contains a lesson, but I’m not sure that these lessons are worth the attention my mind gives them. I don’t dwell on these thoughts, but they skitter across my brain from time to time. It would be good to be able to acknowledge them and their underlying thoughts, and then put them on a mental shelf. Then, when they escape, I can say, “Oh, hello again! Do you have anything to add? No? Back you go.”

2015-01-18 Narratives -- index card #storytelling #perspective

2015-01-18 Narratives – index card #storytelling #perspective

By thinking about memories on my own terms, I can make sense of them my way. The narratives we tell ourselves have such power. If your story is “Everyone’s against me!”, it’s easy to find memories that fit that pattern, and you’ll feel worse and worse. If your story is “Actually, things are pretty awesome,” it will likewise be easy to find memories that fit. By thinking about the general types of memories that come up and connecting them to a positive story, it’ll be easier to respond to them positively when they come up at other times.

In addition to cultivating your existing memories, it’s also good to deliberately create good ones. The impression I get from how other people do this is that people plan Big Memories. The awesome vacation. The ascetic pilgrimage. The conquered marathon.

My life tends to be about small memories. The in-joke picked up from the movie W- and I watched a few years ago, blended with the pun of the moment. The amusing situations our cats get themselves into. Cooking with friends. There are big memories mixed in there too (family trips, graduations, weddings), but the small ones… How can I explain this? The small ones seem as richly flavoured as the big ones are. Big memories are easier to tell other people about, but the small ones are more plentiful.

(Unless you’re like my dad, generating big memories by the bucket-load because you’re always on interesting adventures.)

What would it be like to be a big-memory-full person, a bucket-list-crosser-outer, a grand adventurer? Maybe I’d go refresh my memory of a night sky so clear you feel the dimensions of space. Maybe I’d splurge on eating interesting food at wonderful restaurants. Maybe I’d go to more parties (some of my friends throw themed ones, even). Maybe I’d bike around more in the city, or take the train and try biking near Niagara. Maybe I’d get back into the habit of having birthday parties.

In “Memories Make Your Life Meaningful – Here’s How to Have More of Them, Ben Casnocha writes:

  • Prize novelty. Novelty leads to memories.
  • Take on challenges; endure struggle; feel intense lows and highs.
  • Do things with people. And use people as a key variable.
  • Seek novelty, yes, except when novelty itself becomes routine.
  • Review and re-live memories soon after the fact.
  • If you consciously focus on creating a great memory in the moment, it sticks.

More novelty, more randomness, more challenges, more people, more review, more attention. This slows life down, makes it denser with memories, and expands joy.

Cultivate memories more deliberately: make sense of your existing memories, and consciously build new ones. What would you like to remember in twenty years?

“Call no man happy until he is dead” – I think it’s okay to be happy

In a comment on my reflection on leisure, Thomas Worthington mentioned the story of Solon and Crœsus. Crœsus had asked Solon who the happiest person was, and Solon’s answers focused on people who had died admirable deaths. The idea is that you can’t say people are happy or blessed person until they die, since their luck could always go bad.

 I’d come across that idea before. Aristotle says something similar in Nichomachean Ethics:

He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life. (1101a10)

It got me thinking about the differences between how I think of happiness and how I think they thought of happiness. I can see the point of those ancient philosophers, but it seems unnecessary to focus on what people would judge as happy.

2014-08-13 Call no man happy until he is dead - #philosophy

2014-08-13 Call no man happy until he is dead – #philosophy

For me, it’s much more useful and more real to be able to think of myself as happy, and to keep in mind that the ups and downs of fortune are small waves in a very deep lake. It’s like Louis CK’s rant, Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy. I’m writing this on a computer and the text will be sent off through radio signals and electrons and photos around the world! And I have windows and indoor plumbing and all these other luxuries beyond those enjoyed by ancient kings.

But this kind of happiness comes easy to me, at least at this moment. We’ve learned a lot about how the mind works, but not enough – there are things that can take away your ability to appreciate and enjoy and hope. (Note to future Sacha: if this happens to you, remember that things will work out.) In the meantime, giving myself permission to be happy–not a tempting-fate sort of happy, just an appreciative sort of happy–makes it easier for me to enjoy life.

People have different ideas about happiness. Some people think happiness requires wealth, fame, pleasure, freedom. I doubt there’s much point in trying to change someone’s mind about happiness or get them to agree with you on your definition; and even your definition might change over time, as you learn from other people. Live your own life as well as you can. Perhaps by illuminating those possibilities, you might help other people explore their own.

Mapping what makes me happy

Thinking about what makes you happy is a good way to tweak your life so that you do more of the things that make you happier.

Here’s an incomplete, not-to-scale map of things that make me happy. I started by brainstorming lots of things, then moving them around in the Inkscape drawing program (it’s like magnetic poetry with an infinite refrigerator door!) until order emerged. Also, reading the book Back of the Napkin helped.

I’ve divided into things I do with other people and things I do with myself, and I’ll add more as other things occur to me.

Happiness map - click for full size

What’s your happiness map? Here’s how you can figure it out:

  1. Take a whole bunch of sticky notes, index cards, or other things you can write ideas on.
  2. List all the things you do that you enjoy.
  3. Move them around until an order makes sense. I sorted mine in order of increasing happiness, and then I grouped them by type.