Is your life getting better or worse?

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

Aristotle

I’ve not heard a better alternative to Aristotle’s view that happiness is the purpose of life. The problem with the subjective nature of happiness is it can’t be measured. Just as someone trying to slim down will measure their weight, shouldn’t we all take an interest in knowing whether we’re getting better at life? I’ve previously written about the different ingredients that make for a happy life, namely: relationships, purpose, mastery, experience and health. But if we had to devise a simple way of knowing whether life was improving or not, I’d boil it down to one word: memories.

What did you do last year?

Think for a minute. Working in the office, watching Netflix or going down the pub probably didn’t spring to mind. If you can’t remember much, was last year a waste? Consider this thought experiment: if you could choose between a great holiday but remember nothing afterwards or an okay holiday and remember all of it, which would you choose? If you could no longer forge memories then wouldn’t you cease to exist? Memories are who we are and make life worth living.

Memories are a KPI for living

Memories or more specifically autobiographical memories are the best indicator of a life well lived. If you made a ton of money last year but I spent 12 months making unforgettable memories from new experiences and travel, who’s the winner? We all envy that person at the dinner table that has a treasure trove of stories but no one wants to sit next to the dreary dullard that only talks about money.

How memories are made

We remember emotionally significant events better than boring ones. This makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective. You remember in detail that time a sabre-toothed tiger chased you in the unfamiliar savanna. You won’t be going there again! When something’s new/different it makes an imprint, it’s an experience and when it’s not, it’s routine. Having sex with someone for the first time is memorable and unmemorable for the hundredth.

Look for discomfort

“Given the choice between the experience of pain and nothing, I would choose pain.”

William Faulkner

Life would lack contrast if you were in a perpetual state of glee. The stress hormone cortisol is a key ingredient in making memories. Risk and discomfort make for a richer life. My best experiences were when I was most uncomfortable; freediving into an underwater cavern or sparring in Thailand. I’m sure you have experiences that were unenjoyable at the time but have become your best memories and stories to tell today.

We’re hardwired to be lazy

Reducing energy expenditure used to be an essential survival mechanism. The more energy we conserved the more we had for foraging, reproduction and fighting off predators. We are hardwired for laziness. Our genes want the path of least residence and our brains literally try and protect us from change. Today there are no predators to worry about and energy sources are abundant but our evolutionary genes want the same thing. This genetic trap makes for a sedentary life and fewer memories that you could/should be making.

How many good years do you have left?

By “good” years I mean years you’d expect to be healthy and active. This can be quite sobering, another year drifts by and you realise 5, 10 or 15% of your good time has gone. Your energy-conserving-change-resistant genes have kept you from doing all those things you said you were going to do. Instead, you’ve spent most of your time staring at a screen. The average adult is expected to waste 34 years of their life doing exactly this ..how depressing.

Keep a memory log

I realise that logging memories/experiences sounds lame but it’s an easy thing to keep track of in an Excel or Google sheet. If you want to get fancy then you can add a weighted score between 1-10 and look to see where you’re trending over a period of months and years.

Summary

The counterargument to living a life full of deep, rich memories is that some people enjoy a life of routine. This is certainly true, we all know people like this. But if you’re not one of them and know that you should be living life differently then it’s time to resist your prehistoric instincts and forge memories you’ll look back on with joy.

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