Big Self
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How to Cultivate a Life Full of Extraordinary Moments

The elements that transform a run-of-the-mill experience into a defining moment

Photo by Lynda Hinton on Unsplash

Take a quick mental inventory of your “keepsakes.” Most of them are physical reminders of defining moments; love notes, wedding photos, a childhood memento, a souvenir from a magical trip- they help us to remember moments of significance in our lives. These objects bring us back to the pleasant emotions of that experience. A beautiful blend of elements merged to make those moments so special that we want to emotionally revisit them.

But what elements must fall into place to transform an experience into a defining moment? Can we purposefully create more defining moments in our lives?

In the book “The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact,” authors Chip and Dan Heath delve into answering these questions. They explore the nature of defining moments and then outline how we can create more of these memorable and often powerful experiences in our lives.

Defining moments have such an impact on us. Why just wait for them to come around when we can shape our experiences to encourage more of them?

What Makes a Moment?

The authors discovered that defining moments need to have at least 1 of these 4 elements:

Elevation: Memorable delight; often the kind of experience where you are surprised by sensory pleasure.

Insight: Suddenly seeing things as they really are; which can effectively rewire our understanding (often called an “aha moment.”)

Pride: Capturing us at our best; often experienced as feelings of achievement or courage.

Connection: Experiences that we share with others; often a collaboration that has a shared meaning or goal.

Not all defining moments are positive though; they can come from peaks or pits. Sometimes it takes a negative experience to create a “crystallization of discontent,” when it really hits you that you need to make a change and it becomes obvious that there is only one way forward. Even experiences that embarrass us, or are traumatic can cause us to be hit with an insight that transforms us.

Most of us don’t want to encourage more pits, but by being more aware of the elements described above, we are better equipped to turn tough experiences into transformative moments. It could be as simple as reaching for connection during a difficult shared experience.

Creating Moments

So what if instead of waiting for these elusive moments (the positive ones at least) to fall upon us, we cultivated them? What if we thought in terms of moments; understanding when special moments are needed, transforming run-of-the-mill occasions into peak experiences?

As the authors beautifully explain, “We can reorganize where the prose of life needs punctuation, and give shape to time.” Transitions can be marked, milestones commemorated, and pits filled; there are experiences that deserve punctuation- an exclamation mark, a pause, all bold caps, or maybe the start of a new chapter. These punctuations not only cause experiences to stand out in our memories, but they also allow more opportunities to create meaning in our lives. They propel us forward by helping us to recognize our own growth or the need to move on.

The authors go through each of the elements that make up defining moments, (elevate, inspire, pride, connection) sharing ideas for how to cultivate each of them; teaching us how to shift toward thinking in terms of moments.

Elevate

The Heath brothers share 3 ways to elevate a moment:

  • Boost sensory appeal (create a pleasurable experience)
  • Raise the stakes (add an element of pressure; competition, deadline, performance)
  • Break the script (defy expectations about the experience)

One of my favorite quotes from this book is “When it comes to elevating a moment, be aware of the soul-sucking force of reasonableness!” Many of the things that elevate an experience from good to wonderful are not practical or cost-effective. If they were, everyone would be doing them and they would not be novel, special, or surprising. The goal here is to create an emotional response.

Inspire

To encourage moments of insight, you need to create an environment that allows people to discover truths for themselves. What you want to do is help a person “trip over the truth,” or lead them to a self-discovery that packs an emotional punch.

Creating moments of insight can be really powerful when teaching. Instead of offering students problems and solutions, dramatize the problems and let them discover the solutions so that they can experience the aha moment that uncovering the answer allows for.

Another great quote from the book: “It may be counter-intuitive, but self-discovery rarely comes from staying inside our heads.” Reflecting or ruminating upon what is already in there, usually doesn’t lead one to answers. Studying our own behavior can be an effective way to get insights. Actions lead to insights more often than insights lead to action. Getting outside your comfort zone, and acting in ways that challenge you, can lead to crystalizing moments, which cause you to stretch and reach for even more insights.

Pride

When it comes to achieving goals, hitting milestones invokes feelings of pride. Milestones compel us to keep pushing forward because they are within our grasp and are taking us closer and closer to the greater goal. We experience bursts of pride, and the motivation to continue on. Adding and celebrating milestones on the way to a loftier goal is a great way to create moments. Sharing these moments with others can introduce the elements of connection and inspiration too.

Being courageous can spark moments of pride. “Practice courage,” by having pre-determined responses to different situations, for example saying “NO” to a social engagement you really are not interested in. You can also practice courage by reaching out to others and expressing yourself in ways that make you feel vulnerable. For example, instead of writing that thank you note, set up a visit, and express your gratitude in person.

Connection

When having experiences with others, shared meaning is what creates defining moments. What binds you together, and supersedes your differences? When people feel united, they will persist in working through challenges and will embrace struggle when they share a mission. The conditions that create this are: meaningful work, autonomy in carrying it out, and the choice to participate or not. When we are able to willingly share our gifts and work towards a shared goal with others, beautiful moments are bound to happen.

Not only can we connect with other humans, but we can also connect with our work by giving it meaning. Who is the beneficiary of your work, and how does your work contribute to their well-being? Reframing your work in this way can lead to a shift in perspective that connects you to a more meaningful relationship to the work that you do.

What matters to you? If you want to connect with others and create more responsiveness, this is the question to ask. Disconnection comes from a lack of responsiveness. Being responsive to others, in a dance of connections that includes moments of vulnerability, is an excellent way to create more shared defining moments.

Conclusion

Just being aware of the elements that can elevate a moment can help you to spot opportunities to cultivate them in your day-to-day lives. Stay alert to the promise that all moments hold. It truly is THE way to live life to the fullest. An extraordinary life doesn’t require a series of extraordinary events; it is created by calling forth defining moments from unexpected places. So many of our days are spent doing things that we would never classify as exciting or transformative, but we can elevate our routine experiences by recognizing the sparks that can be stoked into flames. Almost any moment has the potential to transform us, connect us, and make life feel more meaningful. As the authors say so well, “These extraordinary minutes and hours and days, they are what makes life meaningful. And they are ours to create.”

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Aimee O'Neil MSW

Aimee O'Neil MSW

Curious and compassionate mind explorer, who is working to make wisdom cultivation the next big thing. www.wisdomcultivators.com