Your first kiss. Graduation. Your first job. Your wedding day. The birth of your first child. These are the big memories that we all cherish. But there are other little memories that stick out because they had such a powerful emotional impact on you. Moments that enriched your life, bonded you with others and helped you define who you are.
Well, the latter are just "magic," right? Serendipity. Can't engineer that. They just "happen"…
Yeah, and sometimes they don't. More often than not, one day rolls into the next, one month rolls into the next, you blink your eyes, and you're staring down the barrel of another New Year's Day saying: Where the heck did the time go? Serendipity can be a bus that never arrives. So why do we leave special moments to chance? And why do we not do more to create those special memories for others — the way we'd like them to make some for us?
We get tired. We get lazy. And then boom — suddenly CVS is loaded with Christmas ornaments and it signals the end of another year. No good. If we want great memories we have to make them. But how do you do that? What makes some little moments so powerful? And others the epitome of "meh"?
Chip and Dan Heath have a new book that lays out the science you need to know — The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact. Time to learn how to construct more events that will restock your reminiscence reservoir. Boost your nostalgia number. Fill your flashback fund.
Let's get to work.
1. Create moments of elevation
Parties. Competing in sporting events. Taking off on a spontaneous road trip. What do they have in common?
Moments of elevation are experiences that rise above the routine. They make us feel engaged, joyful, amazed, motivated.
If you feel the need to pull out a camera, it's probably a moment of elevation. (Unless you're taking a selfie. In that case, just put it away, you narcissist.) So what is it at the core of a moment of elevation that we can add to any event to make it more special? Remember the 3 S's: sensory, stakes, and script.
Boost sensory appeal: This is why concerts, museums, and great meals stick in your memory and why sitting on the couch is so forgettable. Engaging the senses more intensely makes moments stand out. Raise the stakes: Competing in a sporting event is more exciting than watching one. In fact, betting on a sporting event makes watching one more entertaining. If there's something to gain or lose, you'll be paying attention. Break the script: Don't do the usual thing. Don't just get coffee or have dinner. Boring. Take your default and flip it on its head. Defy expectations and strategically surprise people.
Southwest Airlines broke the script by tweaking their normal flight safety announcement. One of the lines they added was:
If you should get to use the life vest in a real-life situation, the vest is yours to keep.
People loved it. In fact, those who heard the new messages actually flew more. And that resulted in an extra $140 million per year for Southwest. Breaking the script produces delightful moments. The Heath brothers write, "The most memorable periods of our lives are when we break the script." Sounds kinda pat and corny — but it's true.
Research shows that when older people look back on their lives, a disproportionate number of their big memories happened in a very narrow window: between ages 15 and 30. That's not even 20 percent of the average lifespan. Is this because our memory is sharper then? Or because young adulthood is a "magic" time? Heck no.
It's because after 30 life can get pretty darn boring. After their third decade has passed, most people don't do anything as novel as falling in love for the first time, leaving home, going to college, or starting their first job. So months and years blur together because nothing new and shiny happens. But neuroscientist David Eagleman says that when you inject novelty into your life, you prevent the blur. Surprise stretches time. So break the script and interrupt the blur with moments of elevation.
So boosting sensory appeal, raising the stakes, and breaking the script can turn little moments into big memories. What else has that power?
2. Celebrate moments of pride
A graduation party. The ceremony where you received your black belt. Or that special session when the parole board declared you "rehabilitated." You want to commemorate achievements. When you have your skill noticed by others, you can puff your chest out and take a second to feel really good about yourself. And this is not a "nice to have." Research shows we need these.
Carolyn Wiley of Roosevelt University reviewed four similar studies of employee motivation conducted in 1946, 1980, 1986 and 1992. In each of the studies, employees were asked to rank the factors that motivated them. Popular answers included "interesting work," "job security," "good wages," and "feeling of being in on things." Across the studies, which spanned 46 years, only one factor was cited every time as among the top two motivators: "full appreciation of work done."
According to one survey the Heath brothers found, the #1 reason people leave their jobs is "a lack of praise and recognition." So take the time to appreciate what you've accomplished and to let others celebrate with you.
Now I know what some people are thinking: But I don't achieve big stuff very often… But you've already made big strides that you never took the time to revel in. Surface the milestones that already exist. How long have you and your BFF been friends? Ever celebrated that? Didn't think so. (No, that does not make you a bad friend. I still like you. You're cool.)
The Heath brothers tell the story of one couple that even looked back and actually celebrated fights the two of them had during their first year of marriage. Why? Because they got past them. They overcame the obstacles. That's worth appreciating.
And for extra credit, set goals. Build milestones on the road ahead. Why? Because the more finish lines you set, the more moments of pride you'll be able to celebrate. Not only does that feel good, it will motivate you.
George Wu at the University of Chicago looked at the data on how long it took over nine million runners to complete marathons. Most took about 3.5 to 5 hours. But the results weren't evenly distributed. There's this huge spike right before the 4 hour mark. Why? Four hours is arbitrary, right? Yeah — but it's a nice round number. And for many it is achievable if they push themselves. People saw that "arbitrary" time limit approaching and kicked in the afterburners so they could say, "I finished in under 4 hours." And so many did.
Celebrate moments of pride. You don't have to win a Nobel Prize. In fact, celebrating a silly milestone "breaks the script" and may be even more memorable. Set goals so you have more moments of pride to motivate you to achieve and have more things to celebrate in the future.
So you're elevating and celebrating milestones. Great. But relationships are what brings us the most happiness. (And ice cream. Ice cream brings happiness, too.) So how do we make memories that deepen our relationships with others? (And may involve ice cream?)
3. Build moments of connection
Vacations. Reunions. Holidays. The times that bond us with others where we feel all kinds of warm fuzzies. These are the moments when some of the most powerful memories are formed. What does the research say deepens the connections you feel with others?
Struggle. Yeah, struggle. No, I'm not saying you should get in an argument with Uncle Jack again. Anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas (say that three times fast) found that groups that went through "high-ordeals" bonded far more than those that went through "low-ordeals." Struggling together made people closer. This is why fraternities haze. Why soldiers feel like they are kin.
So what the heck does this have to do with relaxing vacations and get-togethers with friends?
Less watching movies and more playing board games as teams. Less shopping and more touch football. If it ends with high-fives, you're probably in the ballpark. And even better if it's a team activity that is connected to meaning. Yes, that even means helping your friend paint their new kitchen and having beers after. You're helping them turn "that house" into "their home." Even if it sounds like a chore beforehand, we often look back fondly on those times, especially if your friend paints himself into a corner.
Okay, we've learned a lot. Hopefully it was a memorable moment — but just in case, let's round it all up and learn how to make the most powerful memories of all.
This is how to create happy memories that will last a lifetime:
- Create moments of elevation: Boost sensory appeal (light some fireworks.) Break the script (don't wait for the 4th of July.) Raise the stakes (hope you don't get arrested.)
- Celebrate moments of pride: If your first book comes out and someone insists you go someplace special that night, do it. Otherwise you wouldn't have a vivid memory. You wouldn't have photos. All you would have is some random date to remember like in 8th grade history class.
- Build moments of connection: Struggle. Working together on something, especially something meaningful, bonds us together. So just help Gary move this weekend and stop whining.
How do you make the most powerful memories of all? You don't have to use just one of the tips above to improve a moment — you can use them all.
Celebrate a friend's "moment of pride" with the "struggle" of a paintball match and "break the script" by also making it a costume party with everyone getting decked out in full military regalia — from the Revolutionary War. Now that's memorable. And insane. But insane is memorable. And not boring. You now know how to make great memories that can last you the rest of your life. You can make them for friends as well — even better, share them with friends. But usually we don't. We do the hum-drum and the days blur together. Life becomes stale and boring and we die a little inside. But you don't have to.
Break the script. Don't let the script break you.
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