Monday, May 3, 2010

Happy "Now" or "After the Fact"

Reading a great new book by Lucy Danziger (the editor in chief of Self) and Catherine Birndorf (a psychiatrist), The Nine Rooms of Happiness (more on the book later), I came across an interesting observation about the difference between our experiences and our memories of experiences.

Scientists apparently often use what's known as the "Experience Sampling Method" to conduct studies; a process by which participants in a study record their experiences at random moments, in real time. Apparently most people have a high propensity to overrate the happiness they experienced doing a particular activity, when asked after the fact, whereas their actual experience in real time rated lower along the way. The example Lucy gives in the book is recalling downhill ski days fondly, when, in actuality, those same days are cold, wet and frustrating in the moment.

Some psychologists think that how we remember things is more important than our real time experience. Others think that what we actually experience is more important.

I tend to think we ought to be "in the moment", as they say--which implies enjoying said moment. And yet...

Say, for example, I'm out for a run. It's a windy, cold day. I'm running into the wind. I feel defeated, and I can't wait for the run to be over. If asked in the moment, I might say my run was no fun at all. However, once I'm home, and enjoying the sense of accomplishment, I look back on the run through rose coloured glasses. Which "interpretation" of my experience is right (because it's all interpretation, after all, filtered through the highly subjective environment of our mind)? Well, both. In fact, my sense of accomplishment may be all the higher, if I encountered challenging conditions.

Does it matter that I wasn't rapturous in the moments of the actual run? In fact, would the ex-post-facto enjoyment be less if the run itself was more enjoyable in real time?

Worth pondering.

Perhaps the answer is that we need to find the joy in the moments of the run itself, but the source of that real-time joy, in some cases, may be the knowledge that you will feel good afterward about the accomplishment.

The bottom line?--we do sports because they make us feel good, about ourselves, about life, and hopefully about the world.