Have you ever been on a trip or holiday that went really well, but a particular incident stands out in your memory that colours the whole experience? Maybe you missed your flight but caught the next one, lost a mobile phone, a passport, or had some other upsetting experience. Apart from this event, you actually enjoyed just about every moment: the peaceful walks, the natural landscape, the amazing food, socialising and the chance to really relax. Why is it that when you look back, the incident is so prominent in your memory?
When researching happiness and well-being, Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, made the useful distinction between our experience in the moment and how we interpret our experience in memory. Inhabiting the real-time experience of the present moment is one of the main themes of mindfulness. When we’re open and aware we’re intimately connected with our experience, no matter how amazing or mundane. We may notice thoughts arise that interpret, or comment on what’s happening, but can choose to stay with the present, rather than entering the stream of thoughts. The interpretive part of our minds works away on the story of the experience. This sense-making of the mind can include problem-solving, exploring different scenarios, planning, decision-making, and judgement.
How we interpret events is also strongly influenced by how we feel at the time. And one of the strongest is our in-built negativity bias. For all the 50,000 years that our ancestors lived as foraging hunter-gatherers, our ability to quickly spot a threat, problem-solve and act gave us a significant evolutionary advantage. So unpleasant events are processed with a higher priority than pleasant ones and stored in our memory as more significant, which then biases our recall of the experience.
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