Is this the Secret to a Bigger Life?

Life is what we remember. Most of your life isn’t spent now; it’s spent then – in memories.

To get a bigger life, therefore, you might think we need bigger memories.

But our memories are selective. To use my favourite cycling metaphor, while you will inevitably spend most of your time going uphill – what you remember are the downhills. Our memories cut the boring stuff.

So we don’t need a bigger memory.

We need bigger time.

Time and Travel – or Time Travel?

Consider this: you spend weeks and weeks looking forward to your holiday. Time in the office seems to drag on forever. Finally you get on the plane and shoot off to a beach on Bermuda.

Lying here, with the sand between your toes, the office seems a million years away. Why is that? But your two weeks of cocktails and beaches fly by in the blinking of an eye – and suddenly you’re back in the office.

Now it’s Bermuda that seems a million years away. Did time get mixed up in the Bermuda Triangle?

A physicist might put it thus:

A displacement in space is equal to a displacement in time.*

Or, to put it another way, travel makes time bigger.

Continuity and Happening

Think back to what you were doing ten seconds ago – chances are it was the same thing you are doing now – can you remember how you were feeling then?

Doesn’t it feel weird to think about how you felt just a moment ago? I bet you weren’t really feeling much in particular, at least not until you thought about it.

That’s continuity for you.

The brain seems to have two modes: one for when things are happening and one for continuity. And the more we allow continuity to build up, the less we can pull out of it and remember. It all blends into one.

Our brains don’t bother to make a distinction between this moment reading a blog post and that moment ten seconds ago reading a blog post. In our memories it’s just going to go down as ‘read blog post’ – if that. More likely, it will just get subsumed under ‘just another day at the office’ and none of the specifics will be remembered at all.

For all your brain cares: that moment of your life simply didn’t happen.

Happening and Memory

Happenings, however, break up periods of continuity – and, in doing so, happenings also create a bigger life. Happenings mean that less of our lives get lost in the long tedium of continuity: happenings give us pegs from which to hang the memories of our lives.

For example, how many times have you placed a rogue memory with this kind of dialogue?

‘Oh, that was just before John broke his leg – yes, and not long after Fran won the three-legged race at school – hahaha!’

Travel is a kind of happening. The chronology below shows the effect of continuity and happening on life/memory:

  • Location A: continuity
  • Event 1A
  • Event 2A
  • Event 3A
    • Travel to location B: a new continuity
    • Event 1B
    • Event 2B
    • Event 3B
  • Travel to location A: resumption of continuity
  • Event 4A
  • Event 5A
  • Event 6A
      • Travel to location C: another new continuity
      • Event 1C
      • Event 2C
      • Event 3C
  • Travel to location A: resumption of continuity
  • Event 7A
  • Event 8A
  • Event 9A

Events in locations B and C are distinct and separate from the memories made in the other locations. They seem to stand out more due to the unique nature of the location in which the memories were made. It is harder to place event 5A in the logical progression of the year than 2B or 3C, for example. Although the time spent on the activities may be the same, event 5A appears smaller in life, in the memory, than event 2B.

This has serious implications for our lives. Allowing too much continuity to build up makes our lives smaller!

Breaking up this continuity is the secret to remembering more of your life and thus having, not a longer life (who really wants that, wrinkles and all?) – but a bigger life.

Happening + Bigger Time = Travel

Happenings are not always good (poor old John). They are not always desirable.

Travel, however, is a form of happening that is usually (more of less) in our control. It is also (in the form of a holiday at least) designed to make us happy. That seems to make it a particularly good sort of happening.

Furthermore, because travel creates bigger time, the power of memory associated with it is multiplied. Travel is a happening that leaves an impression on your memory disproportionate in size compared to normal life.

Think about this: despite the fact that you spent 230 days in the office last year, the moments you remember best from that year were those 14 days on a beach in Bermuda. It broke the continuity and created big time.

It made yours a bigger life.


*The incredible distances achievable by flight seem to totally fox our poor little brains. It seems literally unbelievable that we could have been at work in Croydon yesterday, when today we are sipping a Piña Colada on Elbow Beech.

You can test this out. How much travel is needed to blow the mind. Walk down the street and look back at the hundred or so metres you’ve travelled and ask yourself if you can remember what it was like to be you back then. What about a longer walk? I think the brain starts to break up its continuity when the distances become unobservable. A trip of twenty miles or more definitely has the ability to make the brain marvel – when you think about it.

How to be Happy, in 59 Seconds

This is taken from 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman, a book that wants to make your life better – in 59 seconds or less. It is all based on scientific research. If you like that sort of thing.

Here is what he suggests to make you happy.

Write a diary

  • Don’t suppress negative thoughts – they will only come back stronger. So write about them.
  • List 3-5 things to be thankful for once a week. Appreciate things that go unnoticed.
  • Describe a wonderful experience you have had in life.
  • Describe a great future; realistic, but in which you have worked hard and achieved your goals. It won’t help you achieve it, but it will make you smile.
  • Write a short letter to a person you are thankful for. Imagine you have only one opportunity to tell them. Describe what they mean to you and the impact they have had on your life.
  • Think back over the past week and make a note of three things that went really well for you (this can be trivial, like stroking the cat and getting a purr in return).

Spending and Giving

  • Buy experiences, not goods. Experiences tend to be social and the memory of them will improve with age, whereas goods tend to look worse with time. Like my bike.
  • We grow accustomed to changes in our circumstances. So riches will become quotidian.
  • Giving will make you happier than receiving gifts.
  • For a cheaper boost, carry out five non-financial acts of kindness on a single day. Don’t dilute the effect by spreading them out over the week.

Act happy

50% of  your happiness is genetic, 10% due to general circumstances, but 40% is governed by your day-to-day behaviour.

  • Smile for 15-30 seconds. Imagine a situation that would make you smile to make it convincing.
  • Sit up in your chair – posture is important.
  • Swing your arms like a kid (a human child, not a goat).
  • Add a spring in your step.
  • Use more expressive, excitable hand gestures in conversation.
  • Nod your head when others speak.
  • Wear more colourful clothing.
  • Use a greater frequency of positive words and a lower frequency of self-references in your conversation. The film was incredible! Not average.
  • Use a larger variation in the pitch of your voice. Squeak and growl.
  • Speak slightly faster.
  • Arm yourself with a significantly firmer handshake.

Intentional change

  • Intentional change (i.e. pursuing a goal, starting a new hobby) will make you happier than circumstantial change (i.e. a change in circumstances – getting a new car, house etc..).
  • Make the effort to start a new hobby, project, sport – something new, not habitual.
  • Look at something you enjoy already and find something new that is related. For example, playing the clarinet if you enjoy the piano.

All this advice seems pretty cool to me. However, it does come with a ‘be bothered’ warning. Can you be bothered? Seems like a lot to remember for me – no, I mean, go for it!

How to be Amazingly Happy!

Here’s a list of the most pleasurable (legal) things humans can do:

  • Have sex.
  • Suck on a piece of dark chocolate (minimum 60% cocoa).
  • Have a relaxed lunch with a friend.
  • Learn something new.
  • Go shopping!
  • Use your sense of smell – really sniff that flower!
  • Do some gardening.
  • Cook.
  • Sit in silence.
  • Go fishing (aka sit in silence).
  • Play or listen to music.
  • Go for a walk (or any form of exercise).
  • Trust others.
  • Have a nap.
  • Dream (including lucid dreams).

Just for the sake of completion: yes, certain drugs are also extremely pleasurable, but remember how harmful they can be – and just because something is less harmful than heroin doesn’t mean it’s safe!

Also realise that your use of drugs could give you such a massive high that real life just doesn’t seem that great any more. I’m being serious: a cocaine high can increase dopamine levels by 300-700%, compared to the 100% dopamine increase during sex – and you don’t even want to think about what amphetamines can do. Just remember that dopamine is involved in the wanting (i.e. addiction) rather than the liking (i.e. pleasure).

Cool, now I sound like your dad.

This list is compiled from Sex, Drugs and Chocolate: The Science of Pleasure by Paul Martin.

How to Avoid Regret

This is a moderately long article (2000 words). If you’re short on time, you can get straight to the point by going to the summary at the bottom of the page.

The Disaster Paradox

The human cons itself into feeling good about things. This should make us happy – our minds are on our side! They are constantly trying to turn negatives into positives. This is the work of what Daniel Gilbert calls the psychological immune system. The comparison with the physical immune system is a good one: our psychological immune system steps in when something really bad happens and corrects it without us having to do anything consciously.

Sometimes, though, when we’re infected with a minor virus, the immune system doesn’t kick in and we get a cold. Equally, sometimes something minor goes wrong in our life, the psychological immune system doesn’t kick in and we get really annoyed by it. This happens all the time. You might get made redundant: a complete disaster, but you start to rationalise it. It’s an opportunity to develop yourself and you never really liked the company anyway. But if you miss the bus on the way home you get into a stinking fury and it ruins your whole day.

This leads to an interesting paradox. Because mildly bad experiences don’t threaten our psychological health it is sometimes hard to see them positively compared to really awful experiences.

An experiment was done with volunteers who were told that they were joining an exclusive, elite club, but that they had to undergo an initiation which would be an electric shock. There were two sets of volunteers, one set who had a small electric shock and one set who had a massive shock before joining. Interestingly, the people who received the bigger shock preferred the club compared to the people who only had to suffer a small shock. Their psychological immune systems had kicked in at the higher level and had turned it into a positive.

That’s why it’s the small things that really get to us – you can forgive a cheating partner, but not the fact they always leave dirty dishes lying around.

This fact means that bystanders to an insult are often more hurt by it than the actual victims. The bystanders get mildly miffed and don’t trigger the psychological defences, whereas the victim gets badly hurt and looks on the positive side. However, we are not aware of this paradox: we believe that if we were insulted we would feel terrible and that the bystander wouldn’t be too bothered.

Our Defence: Rationalisation

The premise of the good psychological immune system is that it changes the facts to suit your mental state. This is the process of rationalisation. Before you got fired you thought you wanted that job – you did want that job: your brain had rationalised all the bad aspects of the job, leaving you with a feeling of satisfaction. The job was earning you good money and wasn’t too much of a pain in the ass. But as soon as you got fired you realised how awful it was; your brain rationalised in the opposite direction to match your new circumstances and to keep you happy.

How can this be? Simply that, when the psychological immune system is faced with hard evidence opposing the required mental state, it demands more rigorous standards and we criticise that evidence furiously. Forty percent of recently laid-off workers don’t find work again for at least six months, but that figure doesn’t apply to you because you’ve got excellent experience and great references. And when faced with favourable evidence we accept it with very little consideration. Four percent of recently laid-off workers find work that pays better than their old job; you’re easily in that four percent. Our brain agrees to believe what our eyes show us and in return the eyes look for what our brain wants to find. We tackle the bad event with rationalisation, re-framing it in our favour.

But beware: research shows that deliberate attempts delude ourselves will fail. We must feel as if we have come upon the positive feeling honestly, even if subconsciously we are still deluding ourselves. Asking a friend, ‘That job never suited me, did it?’ is an example of a loaded question wrapped up as an honest inquiry. It won’t work unless you’re really gullible.

These rationalisations or explanations are the psychological immune system’s filing mechanism. Explanation closes the file and we cease to respond emotionally to an event that has had closure. Think about the great thrillers in film or literature: there are always plenty of cliff-hangers. You are desperate for the mystery to be solved and, when it is, you get a great dose of pleasure and forget about it, you move onto the next chapter. But if the mystery is never resolved, you keep on thinking about it long after the book’s finished. With explanation we can file the event away. Even fake explanations enable us to move on (as long as we believe in them).

Conversely, the unexplained dominates our mind. If you find out that you have a secret admirer, but you don’t know who, it keeps you buzzing for days – weeks, even! The unexplained is rare and unusual, it captures our attention and we keep thinking about it. This is great if the unexplained is a happy event, like your secret admirer; not so great if the event is a disaster, like your redundancy. If you can explain an event, you can move on from it. However, even in happy circumstances, most people will choose to avoid uncertainty; we are a cautious people and think we’ll  prefer guaranteed outcomes.

What Makes Us Feel Regret?

We feel more regret when:

  • we suffer because of bad luck rather than through human error;
  • we are rejected unanimously by a broad range of people, rather than one judge;
  • we learn of alternatives to our choice than when we don’t;
  • when our bad choices are unusual rather than conventional;
  • when we fail by a narrow margin than a wide margin;
  • when we accept bad advice, rather than reject good advice;
  • when we don’t act, than when we do (even wrongly).

We feel more regret in these situations because the psychological immune system is less able to rationalise away these occurrences. Bad luck is a poor excuse; we prefer to have someone to blame. But then again, we can’t blame everyone. If you have a choice of a hundred spaghetti sauces and the one you choose is not good then you only have yourself to blame because you could have gone for a different one. If you are doing something that no one else is doing and you fail, you only have yourself to blame. If you come within a millisecond of breaking the county 100m sprint record, then you’ll obsess over all the little things you could have done to get that last fraction of a second. If you accept bad advice then you can only blame yourself for being so stupid to have taken it. Rejecting good advice is much easier to rationalise: maybe it wouldn’t have worked out so well for you, it was still the right decision in the circumstances and so on.

The interesting thing about the last point, however, is that we expect to regret incorrect decisions that we act on more than incorrect decisions where we didn’t act – even though the opposite is true. Daniel Gilbert gives an example with stock shares.

You have shares in Company A and consider moving them to Company B, but don’t. Company A’s shares then lose £1,000 in comparison to B’s. At the same time you have shares in Company C and decide to switch them to Company D, whereupon they instantly lose £1,000 in value compared to Company C.

Which scenario do you instantly feel worse about? The one where you make the switch, right? The one where you took action. But we know that inaction, in the long run, will make you feel more regret than action.

We find it harder to generate a positive view of inaction because we can’t think of all the lessons we learnt from the experience, whereas with action you can always say: ‘Well at least now I know!’ Although our psychological immune system can rationalise an excess of courage better than an excess of cowardice, we will always err on the side of inaction for fear of looking like an idiot.

We are also more likely to look for the positive in things that we’re stuck with. Tests on people on election day show that they prefer their chosen candidate on the way out of the polling booth, compared to on the way in. Siblings, employees and spouses should provide numerous other examples from your own life. You demand higher standards from someone on a first date compared to someone you’ve already said ‘I do’ to. We feel happier when we get a test result saying that we have a potentially deadly genetic defect OR if it says that we don’t – but we feel terrible if the tests are inconclusive. We can’t feel happy until the fate is irrevocably ours.

Summary: How Can I Avoid Regret?

Our psychological immune system will kick in at a certain level and particularly when we:

  • take action;
  • are in pain;
  • are trapped and have no choice.

Conversely, the psychological immune system is not good at seeing the good side of:

  • inaction;
  • mildly negative events;
  • avoidable events.

But, when given a choice, we do not choose action, serious pain and irreversible commitment over inaction, mildly painful things and freedom. So we are actively choosing the things that will leave us less satisfied in the long run.

However, knowledge is power, so I have a few of suggestions of how to avoid regret. Do not be surprised if you find them hard because they run counter to every instinct you have.

  • Don’t think too much, just act – even if you think inaction is wiser.
  • Consequences from actions, bad or good, can and will be justified.
  • But equally, keep most people on your side – your psychological immune system can’t ignore overwhelming evidence!
  • If in doubt, follow conventions – they are more easily justified.
  • Don’t be afraid of failing spectacularly – you won’t feel that bad.
  • When you fail by a hair’s breadth use it as motivation, try not to think what might have been.
  • Don’t fear the catastrophe.
  • Don’t fear pain – in fact, seek out real hardship.
  • Don’t give yourself a choice, commit.
  • Start shopping in smaller shops (or write a specific shopping list before hand).
  • Become a determinist (‘There was nothing I could do…’).
  • Look for the good (or the diabolically disastrous) in the small things that go wrong.
  • Writing about bad events can make you feel better about them. However, logically enough, writing about good events makes you feel worse about them!

I’m sure you can already spot problems with this list (slavery was a convention once and presumably Hitler could have done without some of the consequences of his actions) so remember to do things that you can justify to yourself and, if in doubt, write down this justification in plain, logical language so that later, when you are kicking yourself for investing in paper pickaxes, you can remember what on earth possessed you. At the very least this justification will make it look more like you had no choice anyway so you can just sigh and get on with no regrets.


This article draws heavily on the work of Daniel Gilbert, specifically his book Stumbling On Happiness.
This was originally published on the website, How to be Human. I hope it finds a new audience here.

How to Make Happy Memories

There is a lot going on in our lives and our poor little brains are just not big enough to remember every detail of all the things that we experience. So they engage in a bit of reductionism. We remember our birthday party last year as being ‘fun’ or ‘debauched’, we remember the botanical garden at Kew as being ‘lovely’ or ‘green’ and we remember banoffee pie as being ‘yummy’ or ‘sickly’. We might go a bit deeper than this for vivid memories, we might remember (or imagine we remember) particular scenes or words, but most people do not have a photographic memory.

So you might imagine that we are more or less at the mercy of the experience itself as to whether it is a happy memory or a sad memory; an exciting memory or a disappointing memory. If the film was an excruciatingly tedious series of over-blown monologues then you are inevitably going to have a memory filled with disappointment. But you would be wrong.

An experiment was done in 1990 by cognitive psychologists concerning memory and the effect of ‘verbal overshadowing’. A group of volunteers were shown a particular shade of yellow for five seconds. Half the volunteers were then asked to describe the colour they saw verbally for a further thirty seconds; the other half just sat and waited for thirty seconds. Everyone was then asked to pick out the particular colour from a line-up of yellows. 73 percent of the non-describers successfully picked out the correct shade of yellow they had studied just thirty seconds earlier from this line-up. That is quite shocking in itself, but incredibly only 33 percent of the people who had described the shade of yellow successfully picked it out. Their description had interfered with their memory, overwriting what they had experienced and replacing it with something else.

This has fascinating implications for happiness and memory. Imagine if, by a simple process of reprogramming, we could remember that monotonous film as a great occasion, one that made us ecstatically happy, rather than bitterly disappointed. All it would take would be a chat over a glass of wine afterwards with a friend, describing all the good bits, all the bits you enjoyed – even if it was just the fact that you had a good nap during the tedious monologues.

But there is also another implication contained in my first sentence: there is a lot going on in our lives and our brains are not suited to remembering fine details of our experiences. They want to reduce things down to simple ‘good/bad’ adjectives. But if we take time over our experiences, being careful to process them in a ‘happy’ way rather than just experiencing them and automatically assigning ‘good’ or ‘bad’ then we will be more able to generate happy memories. This explains why some people just seem to be happy all the time and others just seem to be permanently annoyed by everything: these people might just have got into the habit of assigning ‘good’ or ‘bad’ more often.

So perhaps the solution is to try and do less and concentrate more on the things that we do experience. Slow down and think about your experience for happiness. Instead of going to Kew Gardens and rushing around trying to see everything, go to just one of the greenhouses and spend all day studying a particular species of plant. By doing things slowly you will remember more and be able to draw more happiness out of each experience. You would have a surfeit of adjectives for that plant, not just ‘pretty’ or ‘withered’ and thus you would be more involved in your own experience.

This need not be the Zen advice that it appears to be. I recently took a long distance bicycle ride to Bordeaux and find that the memories of it are still incredibly vivid and a constant well-spring of happiness. It’s not as though I was picking a blade of grass and contemplating it for hours on end, but just by progressing through France at a leisurely 10 mph I was more deeply involved in my own experience.

How to make happy memories:

1) Self-modify your experiences by discussing them and framing them in a positive light.
2) Broaden your memory’s record of an event by spending longer over it, relishing the moment.

Give it a try today, after all: what price happiness?


This was originally published in 2009 on the (now defunct) How to be Human site. I hope it finds a new audience here.