A warning: I’m about to get a bit philosophical.
Maybe it’s the pace of city living, or growing older–with fewer milestones to measure the years–but time seems to be moving exponentially faster with each passing day. Was that friend’s wedding two years ago or four? Did I turn 30 this year or last? The growing elusiveness of time and its shift from steady construct to malleable force can feel, well, disconcerting.
How do we reflect on our lives as we’re living them? What do we remember of the last year or the last decade if our immediate surroundings haven’t changed all that much? Enter what I like to call “memory currency.”
Memory currency, as I define it, refers to a database of meaningful memories that we can access when reflecting on our lives and ourselves. To get a bit existential here: it’s an affirmation of the nature of existence, that life–our lives, specifically–matter in some way if for no other reason than we have lived them. Unlike tradition understandings of harping on memory as “living in the past,” this sort of heartfelt nostalgia, according to research, actually imbues us with a better sense of self and with excitement for the future. The concept of memory currency is catching on. A psychologist quoted in a 2013 New York Times piece referred to a new line of research surrounding the seeking of soon-to-be-memorable moments as “anticipatory nostalgia”
What is it that we remember? Unless we’re born with the gift (or, as some see it, curse) of hyperthymesia, most of us accurately recall only a tiny percentage of our waking lives. Events that are significant in some way are more likely to be remembered because of the intensity of the positive or negative emotions with which they’re often associated. Negative events are, in fact, more likely to be remembered because of the rumination that takes place surrounding them. The more we think about something, the more likely it is to be stored in the brain’s “filing cabinet.”
But what of the positive, or even just peaceful, memories? How do we build that stockpile? My approach is two-pronged. First, though it sounds like a self-help book cliche, schedule events that make memories, something to take you out of the work-eat-sleep-go-out-on-weekends doldrums. A local college course, a book club or volunteering are good places to start. Or, it can be something simpler, like starting a tradition with friends (pancakes every February, for example) or with a significant other (summer nights out in Brighton Beach). The easiest option, of course, is going on a trip. These don’t have to be grand, international excursions, and personally, I’m irked by “experience collectors” who are only obsessed with their country count. Adventures are ready to be had an hour drive or a 20-hour plane ride from home. Pick a place you’ll anticipate going to (per a recent Atlantic article, we’re happiest when we spend money on experiences we’re excited about as opposed to on material things) and will want to document.
Second, facilitate the remembrance of events as they’re happening. Photos are important to the concept of memory currency–just a few, and not for the purposes of posting on social media. I also love the hippie-dippy-but-actually-useful concept of mindfulness. Stop and asses what’s happening and how you’re feeling. As an example: My husband and I had the best snowed-in day two winters ago. Nothing of importance happened aside from us playing in the park and making a gourmet lunch and from-scratch hot chocolate, but I took photos, and I tried really hard to capsulize those contentment-filled emotions. The day is fresh in my memory while I’d be hard pressed to recall the details of many other days from around that time period.
Living in a global city like New York can make us complacent, that just by virtue of existing here, in this kinetic space, we’re creating memorable moments. It’s not always so easy. Memory currency, much like regular currency, should be sought, earned and stored safely away.
Image courtesy of Andrea Hubbell Photography