Harvard Study Finds We Undervalue The 'Mundane Moments' In Our Lives

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Harvard Business School researcher Ting Zhang says she realized while going through old family photos that we might underestimate the "mundane" moments in our lives. (dolanh/Flickr)
Harvard Business School researcher Ting Zhang says she realized while going through old family photos that we might underestimate the "mundane" moments in our lives. (dolanh/Flickr)

It's likely that your photo albums are full of delightful pictures of major events in your life — birthdays, vacations, et cetera.

And since, in the digital age, it's so easy to take pictures, many of us have thousands just like that. But few of us have pictures of the quieter, less remarkable, downright ordinary moments.

Harvard Business School's Ting Zhang makes the case that everyone ought to pay much more attention to the ordinary moments, because they might be more important than the extraordinary moments.

A couple of years ago, she was looking through old family photo albums and she saw one particular photograph that surprised her.

"We had moved to a new house a couple of years back, but the photos were of us in our old home," says Zhang. "It was Mom cooking in the old kitchen. And my brother, he was doing homework on the kitchen counter. And it was just a flashback to a time that we had completely forgotten about. Little things like, oh yeah, we didn't used to have the stove in the island, it was off to the side. And oh yeah, we had that pot, and...we made really good soup in it. And these are all things that we really didn't think about at the time."

Let's be honest, few people pay attention to moments like that when they're happening.

"It was real. It was authentic," says Zhang. "So, the photos of the extraordinary moments, they're very posed. They're photos that you would see at a portrait studio. But the photos of the ordinary moments just captured how we were. And that's what made them interesting."

But we don't know they're important at the time. Psychologists have already observed that human beings are just really bad at knowing how much something will be worth to them in the future. We overvalue the wrong things, and that can have consequences for our future happiness.


Ting Zhang, doctoral student in the Organizational Behavior Program at Harvard Business School and lead researcher for the study published in Psychological Science, "A 'Present' for the Future: The Unexpected Value of Rediscovery."


On what participants did to remember their "mundane moments":
Ting Zhang:
"We essentially had participants create digital time capsules. In one time capsule, we had participants write about a recent conversation that they had with someone, a social event that they went to — these were college students so we had them write about a class assignment that they did. Then we had them predict, essentially. So we asked them, 'How interesting will it be to yourself to see what you put into your time capsule on a one to seven scale? One being not at all interesting and seven being extremely interesting...' Most people rated about three...not particularly interesting. Average. And then we actually followed up with these individuals. So, three months later [or] seven months later, depending on the study, we actually had them rediscover what they actually put into their time capsules, and we found that individuals systematically underestimated how interesting rediscovering what they put into their time capsules was. And it's particularly the ordinary moments that they captured."

On why we find these ordinary moments interesting:
"The thing is, time changes, right? We move, we make new friends, and these ordinary experiences are imbued with more meaning as time passes...Now there's a feeling that's a lot more meaningful. The little pot didn't seem that meaningful, but now it is because it's imbued with meaning. 'Oh yeah, my mom used to cook soup in that every day.' And now that I'm not living at home, this actually is an item that's quite meaningful."

On whether using social media helps us remember ordinary moments:
"In our studies, we had people actually write in detail about their experiences. So, it's not that just the experiences happened, but we had them...even in a short paragraph, write about their thoughts and feelings at the time. And we're living in a digital age, so now people are taking photos of what they're having for breakfast, so it isn't clear whether looking at a photo of a salad that we're eating for lunch actually does connect us to a deeper conversation that we had while we were eating that salad, right? The social media scene that's now taking place, a lot of this is very public. In our studies, people found a lot of value in rediscovering these moments in private, but we don't know much about what the implications are when we share those experiences with others."

On how participants responded to the studies:
"We actually had a lot of participants write to us and say, 'My gosh. This was such a meaningful experience. I had completely forgotten about this interaction that I had with my daughter. At the time, it didn't seem very special. But now, looking back, I'm so glad that I was able to capture that moment.' So, we've had a lot of people, actually, write to us. And now we're starting a set of projects looking at, how does the process of rediscovery actually impact our well-being and how does it impact how we think about our work? So, some preliminary data suggests that we find our work to be a lot more meaningful if we can go back and think more about the ordinary experiences that we've had."

On future studies that will elaborate on these results:
"This is part of a larger research program, looking at how the learning process seems quite ordinary, but in fact, we show that if you document these ordinary experiences and later rediscover them that you could actually explain concepts better. So, there are some preliminary data to suggest that experts have this curse of knowledge. So, they kind of have forgotten what it was like to just start learning. If you can, at the beginning of the learning process, actually document what you are thinking and experiencing in that moment, that could actually make you better at explaining what you do."


Association for Psychological Science: Rediscovering Our Mundane Moments Brings Us Unexpected Pleasure

  • "We like to document the exciting and momentous occasions in our lives, but new research suggests there is value in capturing our more mundane, everyday experiences, which can bring us unexpected joy in the future."

Quartz: Life’s Mundane Moments Can Later Bring “Unexpected Joy”

  • "In this selfie-obsessed era, it seems that any moment of the day that isn’t Instagram-worthy falls by the wayside. We all want to show our friends that delicious dish we ate and to document our trip to a museum exhibit that everyone’s talking about. But a new study suggests that there is real value in capturing life’s mundane, everyday experiences; and that documentation of these moments can bring us 'unexpected joy' in the future."

Business Insider: This Harvard Study May Give Millennials Scientific Justification To Be Even More Narcissistic

  • "A new study, published in Psychological Science, from a group of Harvard Business School researchers led by Ting Zhang suggests that there is value to capturing the mundane moments in life."

This article was originally published on October 06, 2014.

This segment aired on October 6, 2014.


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