Do you want to experience your life, or remember it?

[greg rakozy photo]

Here’s a conundrum that has emerged for me: Big Days that are fun to do — or useful to do—are not always interesting to write about. Imagine you’ve been working your butt off day and night: a Big Sleep Day to follow? Righteous! But nobody wants to hear about it.

Makes me think about one of the original goals of this project: to help make memories. New memories to compensate for the ones that are going bye-bye faster than the glaciers.

I’ve written about this elsewhere, but the reason we remember less and less as we age boils down to … novelty. Our brains store “diffs” – landmark moments that feel different and evoke strong feelings – while skimming over the been-there-done-that. Since, over time, we encounter fewer and fewer things that seem genuinely novel, an increasing portion of our life goes by without really being processed or socked away.

I – and presumably you too? – yearn to hang on to some of those scraps of lived experience that are running through my fingers. What’s a life, after all, if you can’t reflect on it? Presumably, it’s the kind of life our golden retriever, Penny, enjoyed. Gotta confess, there were times that looked like a pretty sweet dodge. But surely we humans can aspire to more.

Again, this what I had in mind with OBD. By deliberately constructing a meaningful day, at regular intervals, and then documenting it, you rescue that day from oblivion.

So how should we fill our days? With intrinsically enjoyable things or memorable, storyworthy things? The tension between the two is something the Nobel Prize-winning economist Danny Kahneman, who just died, explored in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman posited that we have within us two selves – the one that experiences life and the one that remembers it. “And they don’t always agree,” he explained recently. “They have different interests, in a way. The experiencing self lives moment-to-moment. And the remembering self keeps score.” The experiencing self is basically a hedonist. It basks in the unvarnished sensory joy of being alive and suffers when things go sideways. (Each moment of the experiencing self, Kahneman says, lasts about three seconds. And the vast majority of those moments, because they lack intensity, vanish without a trace. The remembering self is the adult at the table. The planner. The Stoic. The one that generates meaning. And makes all the decisions.

People are fairly opaque to themselves. Why are you doing what you’re doing right now? Truly, why? Is it just force of habit? Or duty? Or virtue-signaling? Is it really something you want to be doing? How do you know? I’ve often said that a good test is this: If you could never tell anything about this thing you’re about to do, would you still do it?

“What,” Kahneman asks, “is the value that you should attach to an experience you will not remember?”

In a thought experiment, he pushes the issue further. Consider your plans for your next vacation. Now imagine that at the end of the vacation they will destroy all your pictures and they will give you an amnesia drug so that you won’t remember anything. Knowing that, would you change your vacation plans? Many people would, actually. Because a lot of us go on vacations to create memories for future consumption.” (Which, ironically, often doesn’t happen-many people rarely if ever look at those vacation pictures.)

Without the remembering self – the storymaking self – think of the things on your bucket list that wouldn’t make the cut. You probably wouldn’t run that marathon. (Or engage in any “type-2 fun” at all.) You’d never pull an all-nighter studying. Or give blood. Or put money in a savings account. Or stick to a diet. Or share food when you’re hungry. You’d probably decide to never become a parent – an enterprise that has been described as “all joy and no fun.” (Life with kids can be fun moment-to-moment, but let’s be honest: the lion’s share of the spoils, in the extremely worthwhile endeavour to have them, go to the remembering self over the experiencing self.) Probably half of the Big Days on this site would have been ixnayed before they began.

There may be a road map here for picking what kind of Big Day to do. The best ones seem to hit the sweet spot of the overlap: they’re weird enough to be memorable, but still enjoyable as they’re scrolling past. This, then, is the holy grail: to bring our two selves together for one day, so we don’t have to choose.

If the perfect Big Day were a novel, maybe it would be Twain’s Huckleberry Finn — both a larkish adventure, ephemeral as foam, and the soul of a whole country.

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