Our lives are filled with memories of experiences we’ve had; but that doesn’t mean we can recall everything that happened to us. Why do we remember certain experiences and forget others—and how can we create more memories?
Research suggests that we tend to remember things more if they elicit strong emotion—negative or positive—and if they are imbued with meaning. Think of your wedding day, or the first time you spoke in front of a crowd. These are experiences that lodge in our memory, sometimes filling us with happiness or pride or a sense of awe.
Now, imagine if you could experience peak moments like these in your everyday life. Wouldn’t we all like more of that?
This idea is at the heart of the new book The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Their book makes the case that peak moments are essential to a happy life and that we could take steps to create more of them at work and in our personal lives.
Drawing on what we know about emotion, meaning, and memory, the Heaths suggest that we can manipulate our experiences to stand out more by incorporating some or all of these four elements:
- Elevation: Rising above the everyday and seeming extraordinary.
- Insight: Challenging our understanding of ourselves or the world, helping us to grow and change.
- Pride: Capturing us at our best, when we are achieving something important or showing courage.
- Connection: Strengthening our social relationships.
By doing so, they argue, we can create more peak, memorable experiences for ourselves, our family and friends, and our workforce.
How experiences become memorable
According to the Heaths, we often overlook opportunities to create peak experiences that could have long-term consequences.
Take, for example, a new employee’s first day on the job, which is often a ho-hum experience filled with lots of paperwork. The Heaths suggest doing something like what the John Deere company did to change the first-day experience for their new employees: providing free parking, greeting them in the office lobby, having fellow employees drop by to introduce themselves, inviting new employees to lunch, decorating their desks with gifts, and performing other welcoming gestures to make them feel valued.
The payoff? A peak experience that communicated a caring culture—something tied to increased productivity, connection, and loyalty to the workplace.
There are certain moments that are ripe for improving, write the authors—like attending the first day of school, receiving a promotion, or retiring after a long career. If we pay more attention to making these events extraordinary, emotionally evocative, and meaningful for those experiencing them, we will increase the chances that these events become “some of the most memorable moments of our lives,” they write.
Feelings of pride can also lead to peak experiences. How many of us had a teacher recognize some hidden strength in us that instilled pride and motivated us to move forward in school or life? I know I did—I still remember when my dissertation advisor praised my writing and made me reconsider my personal strengths. The ability to recognize what is best in others is an important leadership skill.
In the workplace, the Heaths recommend eschewing formal recognition programs, which seem impersonal and may involve quotas, like “employee of the month” awards. Instead, they suggest giving spontaneous and frequent recognition of a job well done, making sure feedback is honest and personal and involves objective measurements—like reaching a work goal or adding to the kindness quotient at the office.
Positive moments are not the only ones that stick in the mind. In fact, research suggests that negative experiences—like making a huge mistake at work or blowing the first date with our dream partner—tend to stand out even more than positive experiences. Is it possible to turn these into peak experiences?
Yes, if we gain insight from them, say the Heaths. Though we may be tempted to beat ourselves up for failing at something, failure can be an opportunity to dig deep and to uncover lessons about our strengths and weaknesses. That means that we shouldn’t be afraid to stretch ourselves, as long as we’re focused on self-discovery rather than achievement.
“The promise of stretching is not success, it’s learning,” write the Heaths. “It’s the promise of gleaning the answers to some of the most important and vexing questions of our lives: What do we want? What can we do? Who can we be? What can we endure?”
Another tool they recommend is writing a gratitude letter to someone who has impacted your life in positive ways. This is an especially powerful way to offer them all four elements of a peak experience at once: elevation (it’s out of the ordinary), insight (it shows that their kindness matters and generosity has ripple effects), pride (it’s recognizing their gifts, which induces pride), and connection (it gives you both a big dose of closeness). And it has benefits for the letter author, too: Research has shown that the rush of happiness that accompanies this experience can last up to a month later.
The Power of Moments is full of useful tips on how to infuse our everyday lives and work with more peak experiences. Though less scientifically grounded than some other books, it is an enjoyable and inspiring read, providing lots of food for thought. Happily, I read it right before planning my 25th wedding anniversary party, and it made a big difference in what I decided to do for that occasion. Instead of a simple dinner party, we added a slideshow and surprise mini-reenactment of our wedding vows, which definitely elevated the proceedings.
And, just as predicted, I’m still reaping the rewards of that peak experience.