The Virtues of Remembering The Mundane

One summer my family and I drove from Melbourne to Adelaide to make it in time for my graduation. It was a 600 kilometre drive — that’s about a 7 hour road trip sitting in a hot car, passing an endless stretch of arid land, counting the naked trees scorched by the unforgiving Australian sun. Then, the time spent seemed insignificant. The conversations, the pep-talks, the packed lunches and pit stops. It was all part of one mundane experience to get us from A to B.

We no longer take these trips, and my father has now passed away but these insignificant moments I initially took for granted, mean the world to me. It’s a discovery in retrograde: the essential from the insignificant.

four-part study in Psychological Science led by Ting Zhang explored the tendency to underestimate just how curious and interested we will be for recounting mundane activities such as making breakfast, or a trip to the mall.

The first of Zhang’s studies, for example, required participants to create time capsules, with such contents including: last social activity attended, a fragment from a recent conversation, an inside joke, a recent Facebook status, and more. They were then required to rate how interested and curious they would be in rediscovering these mementos in the future.

For the most part, curiosity and interest in retrieving these items was rated low. But then three months later when the participants opened their time capsules and sorted through their collected memories, they found that they initially mispredicted how curious and interested they would be in their rediscovery.

Initial predictions were frequently inaccurate. In another of Zhang’s study participants were required to recount an average conversation they had. They again predicted that rediscovering the conversation in the future wouldn’t be of interest to them. Seven months later, when they reread their conversations, participants realised that the more they initially thought their experience would be less intriguing in the future, the more valuable in fact the rediscovery was.

Again they had underestimated the value that reflecting on a seemingly ordinary moment would have. As one participant noted, “re-reading this event of doing mundane stuff with my daughter has certainly brightened my day. I’m glad I chose that event to write about because of the incredible joy it gives me at this moment.”

Extraordinary events in our lives, are just that: extraordinary. We’re lucky to have these experiences, and they are invaluable memories which weave the rich tapestries of our lives. But there are all these smaller events, ordinary events.

At first thought we may think due it’s typicality these conversations and moments are meaningless, not worthy of recollection. After all, it’s happens all the time to everyone, everywhere. But we will eventually stop having these conversations. We won’t be using the same words, in the same way, or speak to the same people. Parents move on, partners may change, and we grow up. As the age old adage goes: nothing stays the same.

In Zhang’s study, three months after participants recounted a typical experience with their partners (an ordinary event) and also recounted their experiences from Valentine’s Day, found that upon reading their recounts, while they still found the extraordinary event extraordinary, they enjoyed reading their recount of the typical a little more.

Thoughts and feelings change over time, and what we find ordinary one day doesn’t necessarily mean we will feel the same in the future. But why do we simply forgo remembrance of the ordinary?

Through the final study it was shown that we forgo remembrance because we misvalue the virtues of rediscovering the ordinary. There is unexpected value hidden within the mundane, and there is great pleasure to be found.

When we made it to my graduation I was relieved. While the grandeur of the occasion is still noteworthy to me now, what I find to be more uplifting is the the only bit of a conversation I remember having with my father, after the ceremony, during the afternoon tea. We were both hovering by the refreshments, judiciously pruning the available treats to make our prime selection. At one point, my father turned to me. “We don’t have tea at home. Would it be socially acceptable if I took some teabags home?” He asked me, stealthily. I looked at him and scoffed, “please don’t embarrass me right now,” and walked away, fully aware that he would most definitely take the tea bags. My father, the teabag thief.

I can’t remember anything else that we talked about, but yet now, these conversations are all I find myself wanting to remember because they made the event what it was. The grandeur has no substance without the granular. Is it merely the event we remember? It’s everything: How we felt, what we said, what we thought, and how we were.

As Zhang’s and her team concluded, “people choose to forgo opportunities to document experiences in the present, only to find themselves wanting to retrieve those records in the future.”

Featured image: Megane Callewaert / Flickr CC


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