Many people in America are stuck indoors for what could be an extended period of self-isolation.
The problems associated with not being in a public work area and having that sense of “being at work” can be quite harmful to the psyche for some. It can be analogous to feeling unemployed, and if not managed properly can make you tailspin if you entertain your circular thoughts.
That part of the self that drags the experiencing self into this tailspin is the remembering self. Without it, we could not have our fantastic foresight and risk avoidance.
But when these systems have too much time in the spotlight of consciousness, wellbeing is compromised.
Daniel Kahneman popularized the two-selves theory of categorizing the experience of consciousness. The first self is the experiencing self. This self is the uncomplicated one, the one focused on senses and the present moment.
The other self, the remembering self, is concerned with how we relate to our memory. These two selves provide a robust method for navigating the world. However, spending too much time in the remembering self mode is a modern problem that needs to be addressed.
Why is spending time as the remembering self bad? It seldom adds to the wellbeing of the experiencing self. If you recall a great experience, you will likely feel as if you have somehow done something wrong not to be feeling as great as you did.
Often, we overvalue how happy individual experiences made us at the time. Nostalgia makes us long for what we mistakenly view as being overly-joyous times in our rearview mirror. As for bad past experiences, we tend to undervalue how awful they actually were.
Both of these biases, the nostalgia, and the “it wasn’t that bad” bias have negative implications for our experiencing self. They relate the current experience to exaggerated good times and hyperbolic bad times.
Relations detract from the experiencing self. It is comparative and tends to strive towards an end experience which is some variation of the vague “better than what I am experiencing right now” assumption.
Why should the remembering self have such control to deceive us? It can influence our decisions even when it has never actually experienced anything.
The remembering self jerks us out of our experiencing self to help navigate future obstacles. But, when this gets out of hand, we deprive our lives of any happiness, because the remembering self cannot experience joy that does not take on a tint of sorrow for previous pleasures that have passed. Steven Pressfield, in one of his fantastic historical fictions about the wars of ancient Greece, had one of his war-weary characters say something to the effect of:
“A person is more dead than alive when more of his friends reside below the ground than above.”
This is also true with experiences and happiness. If more positive experiences seem to lay in the past than the present, then sorrow is the likely effect.
Happiness is a measurable thing, and any way to increase it should be considered. This could include spending less time with the remembering self and more actively engaged with the experiencing self in activities that spark a flow state, or meditation, where the remembering self is dissolved.
“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” — Seneca
There seem to be only a few cases in which the remembering self improves our current wellbeing. It often worries about problems that will never occur, or that can never be solved. This is not a healthy habit. Perhaps when in extreme pain due to a challenging project, imagining how good it will feel to finish it or how much work you already put into it will boost your confidence to complete it and push through.
The psychologist Adam Grant outlines this strategy in his book, Originals. Doing so, however, should be an exception, not the rule. If the only reason you are doing a project is to feel the reward at the end, then the entire enjoyment of the project will amount to a fraction of the whole experience.
Asian philosophy characterizes life as a song, rather than a journey as most westerners conceptualize it. The point of a song is not to end up at any particular note or goal; rather it is to strike a harmony in the moment and be content throughout the experience.
Living life with the expectation of finding some plateau of happiness is a fantasy. There are ways, however, to spark new feelings, that are devoid of the comparing nature of the remembering self, such as in meditation or flow states.
Having access to these tools depends on nothing; anyone can use them to a degree.
For me, these states are found in intense conversation with good friends about fervent interests, meditation sessions that stir the most profound inner-wellbeing, and reading a book that satiates an innate thirst for knowledge.
There is a commonality in these states that is quite profound. First, these states are devoid of the remembering self, so no comparison can even be drawn. The presentness of the moment is readily apparent to all parties involved.
Secondly, typically in the moment but certainly in retrospect, there is a sensation of emotional wellbeing and a sense of belonging nowhere else — of your existence needing no precedence.
Lastly, the novelty of life is sparked, and the world is made de novo through these states. A reminder of how mundane life negates how unique our experience of it can be is given morbidly by Cormac McCarthy’s book, Blood Meridian:
“The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.”
Our innate need to feel like we belong somewhere is out of line with our precedent. In other words, we feel as if we need precedence when, in fact, our existence was never predicated on a having one.
Use this to make the mundane novel; of all the people to be having a conversation with right now, you are having it with this person. The ideas shared and the emotions conveyed have no precedent, and the universe will never see their like again once you quit each other’s company.
Every moment is the most novel it can ever be.
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