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Mundane is good for you: A case for documenting life’s smaller moments

Months and years from now, when you look back on this summer, what memories will you treasure? A wedding? A trip overseas? A mundane chat with a neighbour?

You probably already document the most important and exciting events in your life with online status updates, diary entries, scrapbooks and photo albums. But new research suggests there's good reason to keep records of run-of-the-mill and seemingly trivial matters too, like making breakfast or day-to-day conversations.

In a research paper, published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers at Harvard Business School found people get unexpected pleasure from rediscovering mundane moments.

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"We often do not think about the present moment as something that is worthy of being rediscovered in the future. However, our studies show that we are often wrong: what is ordinary now actually becomes more extraordinary in the future – and more extraordinary than we might expect," lead researcher Ting Zhang wrote in an e-mail.

Previous studies have shown we aren't very good at predicting how our future selves will react and feel. With this in mind, Zhang and her colleagues suggest we often neglect to document humdrum day-to-day experiences because we underestimate how much joy we'll experience when we look back on them later.

The researchers' work was sparked by the realization that even though ordinary experiences make up the bulk of our daily lives, they tend to be underrepresented by the mementos and documents we keep, Zhang explains. She notes she and her colleagues had trouble finding artifacts of their own day-to-day lives, like conversations with friends or pictures of themselves at work. Yet, Zhang says, when we do keep such records, we tend to find it quite meaningful and interesting to reflect on them. (The Globe's Marcus Gee knows this well.)

In one of four experiments, the researchers asked 135 undergraduate students to create a time capsule at the beginning of summer, which included records of a range of experiences, such as the last social event they attended, three songs they listened to, a recent photo and an excerpt from a final paper for class. Using questionnaires, they found the participants failed to accurately predict how curious and interested they would be when they revisited the contents three months later.

In another experiment involving 81 people, the researchers found most participants preferred to spend five minutes watching a talk-show video rather than using that time to write about a recent conversation. Yet a month later, the majority said they'd rather read their records of the conversation. Moreover, participants were overly confident about how much of the conversation they would remember. The researchers say this demonstrates people choose to forgo documenting experiences in the present, in part because they're overconfident in their memory, yet they find themselves wanting to revisit them later.

Luckily, it doesn't require much effort to amuse our future selves.

"Reading a few short sentences written a months earlier was enough to help individuals rediscover the documented experience again," Zhang wrote.

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These findings, however, do not mean you should start recording everything, even though Facebook, Twitter and Instagram make it tempting to document every event, observation and meal. Zhang and her colleagues say a critical component of their observations is the act of reviewing and cherishing recorded memories, instead of endless documentation.

"Some acts of documentation interrupt the experience in the present (taking photos) whereas others are done after the experience is over (writing a diary entry)," Zhang wrote. "More work is needed to understand how the medium of documentation influences this tradeoff."

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