Waving to the owner of the coffee cart outside of your building, petting the sleepy golden retriever you see every day at the bus stop, making lunch when you usually eat out—all of these moments may seem too boring and trivial to commit to memory. The moments people usually choose to preserve are monumental, special in some way. But looking back, there are only a handful of graduations, weddings, and anniversaries among the vast amount of ordinary days in your life.

According to the observations made by a group led by Ting Zhang, a doctoral student at Harvard Business School, people should invest more time in documenting their daily lives and ordinary moments. Zhang's study, published in Psychological Science, attempts to explain why every moment is valuable. Her discoveries question current theories on social media anxiety, and suggest that documenting daily life on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter may prove beneficial in the future.

Four Experiments Searching for the Value in Everyday Life

Zhang predicted that people “undervalue today's experiences, such that rediscovering today's mundane details in the future would be more interesting than they anticipate, and that they would consequently tend to underdocument today's experiences." To test this, she conducted four small studies:

  • Underestimating the Value of Rediscovery (Study 1): 130 participants answered questions regarding their current experiences, and then sealed their answers in a time capsule that would be opened in three months. People sealed away photos, inside jokes, and songs. Then they predicted how they would feel when they opened the capsule in three months.
  • Rediscovering Ordinary Versus Extraordinary Experiences (Study 2): 70 participants wrote about a recent conversation they had. The subjects were contacted seven months later about the conversation they had recorded. Then they were asked how interested they were in reading what they wrote, and how enjoyable or amusing it was to read.
  • Rediscovering An Ordinary Day Versus Valentine's Day (Study 3): 150 individuals that were in a relationship were asked to document a recent typical experience (ordinary) and their experience on Valentine's Day (extraordinary). Participants predicted what their reactions would be three months later, when they would be asked to read their experiences again. Half were randomly selected to read their ordinary experience, while the other half read their experience on Valentine's Day.
  • Forgoing Rediscovery (Study 4): 81 subjects had the choice of documenting their moment or watch a video. One month later, participants chose whether they wanted to read what they wrote or watch a follow-up video. After choosing, participants did both activities in a random order and then rated how meaningful each activity was.

Valuing the Little Things

Across all four studies, Zhang collected the following results:

  • Studies 1, 2, and 3 revealed that people underestimate how interested they would be in uncovering ordinary memories.
  • Study 4 found that people tend to “forgo opportunities to document experiences in the present, only to find themselves wanting to retrieve those records in the future."

To clarify, Zhang notes that “taking time to rediscover and cherish documented memories, rather than documenting endlessly" is the pivotal finding in her observations. Past studies theorize that social media adversely affects the population by teaching people to be unhealthily narcissistic. Other studies confirm that maintaining a social presence online has led to the development of its own kind of social anxiety. Zhang wishes to address all of these theories and suggests that “future research should explore the optimal balance between enjoying the present as it unfolds and documenting the present to enjoy it in the future."

Date of original publication: .

Updated on October 23, 2015.


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Ting Zhang, Tami Kim, Alison Wood Brooks, Francesca Gino, Michael I. Norton. A "Present" for the Future: The Unexpected Value of Rediscovery. Psychological Science, August 2014; DOI: 10.1177/0956797614542274