On Monday morning, Sally and I met with the very special Adrian Bethune, an incredibly talented teacher and author of an upcoming book about teaching happiness and wellbeing in primary schools. We had a lovely meeting – he told us all about his fantastic work, and we discussed several of the happiness experts, whose work he admires. Both Sally and I came away really excited by the discussion, and inspired by Adrian’s dedication, passion and enthusiasm.
Later in the day, however, our moods were lowering. A couple of hurdles with work and the day was running less smoothly and productively than we had hoped. As things drew to a close, Sally was disappointed that she hadn’t even started sending the emails she was supposed to, and I just felt tired and burnt out. We were going home on a downer.
But then we thought about it properly. It hadn’t been an unproductive day at all – we’d had that great meeting with Adrian! We were focussing completely on the negative, to the extent that we had forgotten about this really positive part of our day.
And (unsurprisingly), when we thought back, Adrian had given us a few words of wisdom on this very subject. He talked about how we tend to remember the end of things. As a teacher, Adrian always tries to finish his lessons on a positive because that is the part that the children remember when they leave. He explained that if a pupil had struggled towards the end of the day, he would take them aside and remind them of how well they had done earlier, or focus on a positive of some type. This way, their day ended on a high.
I decided to look into this a bit more and found that Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winning psychologist, explains it really well. In his TED Talk (see here), he discusses an experiment that was conducted in the 1990s. There were two patients, Patient A and Patient B, who were asked, during a colonoscopy, to report on their pain every 60 seconds. From this, it was very clear that Patient B suffered more than Patient A – Patient B’s colonoscopy was far longer and he endured more pain.
However, when asked later about the experience, Patient A had a far worse memory of the colonoscopy than Patient B (who had suffered more at the time). Why? Because one of the most critical parts of the story we remember is the end. The reason Patient A’s recollection was such, was because his pain was the worse at the very end.
Indeed, Kahneman explains that we have two selves: the experiencing self and the remembering self i.e. the self in the present is separate from the self that keeps score.
‘Odd as it may seem, I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.’
Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (2011)
We lose the experiences we have in the moment – they are replaced with memories, and these can be very different from the experience itself.
This reflects exactly on Sally’s and my day on Monday – as we looked at it as a whole, we remembered the more negative end and forgot about the positive start, which, at the time, we had been so enthused about.
And, it applies to so much more…have you ever had a nice evening that was ‘spoiled’ because you couldn’t get a taxi afterwards and had to stand in the rain? Or had a fantastic meal ‘ruined’ by a disappointing dessert?
In reality, the positive experiences were not ‘ruined’. Our remembering self is simply focusing on the negative end of our experience.
So I think we should all take a leaf out of Adrian’s book. Let’s, at the end of each day, or when discussing how our day was, try to draw out the positive. Kaira wrote beautifully last week about her ‘happy diary’ and it sits perfectly here too. If the last thing you do every day is write down your good experiences, your day will always end on a high.
By Ilana Mann