Column | Jan. 7

Memories vs. experiences

In a TED talk titled “The riddle of experience vs. memory,” Daniel Kahneman comments on the world’s increased focus on the topic of happiness and the obstacles we face in measuring and judging happiness objectively. There is “confusion between experience and memory,” he says. “Being happy in your life and being happy about or with your life [are] two very different concepts.” How we feel in a given moment and how we later remember that experience usually tell two different stories; the story that sticks is the latter.

As 2013 came to a close, most of us probably took a moment or two to reflect on the past year. The last few weeks of December are generally a time of reflection and resolve; we want to determine what we did right, what we did wrong and how we can go about doing better in the upcoming year. So, we reminisce. And how we judge 2013 will be contingent on how we remember it. If our memories are fond, 2013 will forever be remembered as a happy year; if the memories that stick are less than favorable, our overall judgment of the year will be impaired.

Increasingly, end-of-year reminiscences involve looking through various forms of social media in order to get a grasp of just how great or dismal the year was. For the past couple of years, Facebook has offered users the chance to look through a review of highlights of one’s activities on the site over the course of the year. This year, Flipagrams — automated photo flipbooks posted to Instagram — were the trend. CTFxC, a video blogging channel on YouTube that features a couple’s daily “vlogs,” uploaded a particularly touching review of their highlights of 2013; they decided which memories were noteworthy by looking through each video thumbnail and recalled the events of each day.

Though most of us do not have access to film footage of our daily activities dating back to Jan. 1, 2013, we can review the year in similar ways. Many of us spent time clicking through “Photos of You” and old Instagram posts to find snapshots captivating enough — read: impressive enough — to put in a Facebook collage or a Flipagram. When it comes time to look back, we want to find evidence of the exciting memories — the ones that make it look like our lives are one big party full of international travels, flashy events and getting drunk with friends.

It may be true that, in the end, the only experiences that will matter are the ones we can still remember. But life isn’t just about the grand, momentous occasions. It’s entirely possible to hold on to memories of smaller, more intimate moments — at home with family, in Frist, at lunch — if we’d just take the time and effort to look past the screen. It’s a shame that their availability has made us tend to focus only on the memories that we have easy access to. It’s an even greater shame that too often, the “highlights” that are captured in Facebook photos, Instagram posts, Tweets, Vines, and so on are only a fragment of what we should consider meaningful experiences. They consist of only a small portion of the vast pool of memories that can change the way we feel about the past year — memories that can change the way we evaluate how happy we were in 2013.

Kahneman says “the remembering self is the one that makes decisions. We don’t choose between experiences, we choose between memories of experiences.” The choice, then, is ours — we should be cautious not to let social media platforms decide for us which memories we should choose. We should pick the memories that will let us remember 2013 as a year of happiness, and not settle for the ones our Facebook profiles deem noteworthy.

Jiyoon Kim is a freshman from Tokyo, Japan. She can be reached at ljkim@princeton.edu.

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