Why you should savor today’s mundane moments

A few years ago, Harvard Business School’s Ting Zhang was looking through an old photo album when one snapshot caught her attention.

“We had moved to a new house a couple of years back, but the photos were of us in our old home,” Zhang tells WBUR’s Radio Boston. “It was Mom cooking in the old kitchen. And my brother, he was doing homework on the kitchen counter. And it was just a flashback to a time that we had completely forgotten about. Little things like, oh yeah, we didn’t used to have the stove in the island, it was off to the side. And oh yeah, we had that pot, and…we made really good soup in it. And these are all things that we really didn’t think about at the time.”

We should start appreciating it at the time, Zhang argues in a study, “The Unexpected Value of Rediscovery.”

In the study, students were asked to create a time capsule and load it with evidence of the typical moments of a day.

Asked to rate how interesting they expected to find the items months later on a 1 to 7 scale, the students picked an average of “3” — not that interesting.

Months later, they were far more interested in what they rediscovered than they’d predicted.

“The thing is, time changes, right? We move, we make new friends, and these ordinary experiences are imbued with more meaning as time passes…Now there’s a feeling that’s a lot more meaningful. The little pot didn’t seem that meaningful, but now it is because it’s imbued with meaning. ‘Oh yeah, my mom used to cook soup in that every day.’ And now that I’m not living at home, this actually is an item that’s quite meaningful.”

“We actually had a lot of participants write to us and say, ‘My gosh. This was such a meaningful experience. I had completely forgotten about this interaction that I had with my daughter. At the time, it didn’t seem very special. But now, looking back, I’m so glad that I was able to capture that moment.’ So, we’ve had a lot of people, actually, write to us. And now we’re starting a set of projects looking at, how does the process of rediscovery actually impact our well-being and how does it impact how we think about our work? So, some preliminary data suggests that we find our work to be a lot more meaningful if we can go back and think more about the ordinary experiences that we’ve had.”