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The Power of Moments

The Power of Moments

In general, life can be extraordinarily unextraordinary. Errands, television, the tedium of daily chores blur together and can make the story of our lives feel remarkably…meh. The standout memories, on the other hand, hijack the mind. We replay them over and over. But how would our internal landscape change if we understood how to carve impactful memories out of ordinary days? In The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact, Chip and Dan Heath deconstruct what goes into the most memorable events of our lives and discuss how to multiply them by breaking up life’s narrative.

A Q&A with Chip and Dan Heath

Q

The Power of Moments focuses on the key components of defining moments. How do these elements work together to create a standout memory?

A

Our quest in the book was to understand: What causes certain experiences in our lives to become defining moments—brief experiences that are unusually meaningful and memorable? Those moments could be your wedding day, or a great vacation, or that time in school when a teacher commented on a talent that you didn’t even know you had.

We found that defining moments all tend to have four elements:

  • Elevation: Moments that lift us above the ordinary. They inspire joy and engagement (like birthday parties, weddings).

  • Insight: Moments that rewire our understanding of our world (like epiphanies).

  • Pride: Moments of achievement or recognition (like awards ceremonies or praise from a mentor).

  • Connection: Moments that deepen our ties to other people, sometimes in personal relationships and sometimes in groups (these might range from deep, personal conversations to thoughtful gestures from our friends).

A defining moment doesn’t need to have all four of these elements, but we should make liberal use of as many as we can when we’re trying to create memorable experiences.

Q

Is this applicable only to positive memories? Is there a way to pay tribute to difficult times, failures and losses?

A

You’re right that many of people’s defining moments are negative—moments of loss or trauma or anxiety. We were inspired by the way some people used moments to create fresh starts for themselves. There was one woman who’d lost her husband to Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). She and her spouse had had a close marriage. After a hard day, they would sometimes put their hands together in bed so that their rings touched and repeat their wedding vows to each other. It had been six years since her husband had passed, and she thought she was ready to start dating again. But she couldn’t bear to take off her wedding ring. She felt guilty and confused and stuck.

Her counselor suggested that what she needed was a ritual of transition, and he worked with the woman’s priest to arrange it. One Sunday after Mass, they gathered the woman’s family and friends together. The priest began to ask her questions: “Were you faithful in good times and bad?” She said, “Yes.” “In sickness and health?” “Yes.”

The priest led her through her wedding vows—but in the past tense. And at the end of the ceremony, he asked her for her ring. She took it off. Her counselor arranged for her ring and her husband’s rings to be connected together and affixed to the front of their wedding photo. The ceremony allowed her to attest, to herself and the people she loved, that she had fulfilled her vows and that her identity was about to change. It was a moment that allowed her a fresh start.

Q

In your book you talk about memory creation—how peaks and the valleys define something like a trip.

A

Psychologists know that we don’t remember experiences start to finish, like a video that we can play back in our heads. Rather we forget most of what happened and hold on to certain key moments. Specifically, we tend to remember two particular moments: 1) the peaks, which are the best moments in a positive experience, and 2) the endings. This helps to explain something we might call the Disney paradox: If you were to measure your minute-by-minute happiness at a Disney theme park on a hot, crowded summer day, chances are you would have been happier for most of the day if you’d been sitting on your couch at home. But in memory, the Disney visit might be a highlight of your year. And you’re not crazy to think that, because at the park you experienced some peak moments—the kinds of moments that never come from sitting on your couch.

Q

What are simple things you can do to make an experience that might be trying into a memorable one? Is this the same as rose-colored glasses? This would be helpful for exhausted parents.

A

Parents are good at softening the pain of tough experiences—stopping for a milkshake after a painful dentist visit or letting your kids binge-watch their favorite show when they’ve got the flu. One thing that doesn’t seem to come as naturally to most parents, though, is breaking the script, which means that we disrupt routines. A friend of ours said that when she was growing up, her dad would occasionally wake her up in the middle of the night. They’d go downstairs and eat snacks by candlelight and talk and play games or watch a movie. And she said she absolutely cherishes those memories. As another example, we met a man who invented a family holiday. Every year, his kids get one day when they get to plan everything the family does—where to eat and what to do. He said his kids’ friends are always envious of this holiday! That’s what we mean by breaking the script. Research shows that novel experiences make time seem to slow down, and we savor these moments more.

Q

How can we spot the opportunities to create important memories?

A

Pay special attention to transitions: beginnings and endings. If you think about some of the most well-known cultural rituals—birthday parties, weddings, graduations, rite of passage ceremonies—these are all experiences that demarcate transitions. Yet many transitions lack an accompanying ritual. Think of the story of that widow—that was an example of a life transition that was missing a moment. But the reverse wedding ceremony created by her counselor and priest filled the need.

Or here’s a work example: a new employee’s first day. This is a big life transition, but most organizations seem to treat it like a nuisance. (“We don’t have your computer set up yet, but you can just sit here and read the compliance binder for a while.”) But in the book, we tell the story of a woman at John Deere who crafted this wonderful, motivating first-day experience that begins with having your boss meet you at the front door and continues with a tour, a gift, and a welcome message from the company’s CEO that describes why the work of the company matters, then an off-site lunch with a small group who talk about the projects they’ve found most meaningful, and an invitation to lunch the next week from your boss. Everything is designed to lead the new employee to think, This job matters, I matter, and I belong here.

There are lots of transition points that could benefit from moments: a child’s first day at school, a citizen’s first vote, a person’s first paycheck, or a couple’s first day as empty nesters. Maybe even a ceremony for grandparents where they take a pledge to provide relief to parents, support the parents’ house rules, and not smuggle too much sugar to the grandkids.

Q

You talk about the importance of a gratitude practice. What does a good one look like, and why is it important?

A

We would expand beyond gratitude. What we need to do is find more opportunities to recognize others, which is a way of creating moments of pride. We came across a fascinating researcher named Gad Yair, who studies educational turning points. He interviewed hundreds of people about their school experience, and they tended to tell the same kinds of stories. Yair described them as “Cinderella” or “Ugly Duckling” stories. In a typical example, someone would recount a dark moment in their adolescence, a time when they felt invisible or felt like a failure. Then a new adult would come into their life and recognize something in them—praise their work or recognize a talent they had—and these moments had so much power for the kids. They felt noticed. They felt special. And as a result, they grew in new directions. And what we suspect is that these teachers may not even remember making comments that changed children’s lives!

That’s what is so remarkable about moments of recognition and gratitude. This sense of magnification. A bit of praise or appreciation in the right moment—the kind of thing that might take three minutes—can have a lasting impact on people’s lives.

Q

There’s a lot of conversation about praise culture when it comes to raising kids. How do you suggest parents temper that to help kids create impactful moments and standout memories?

A

We’re certainly aware of all the chatter about participation trophies and so forth—the idea being that kids are overpraised and over-recognized. And no doubt that’s true for some kids. But our suspicion is that most kids do not fall into that category. That’s why Yair discovered so many “Ugly Duckling” stories: Many kids are not receiving that kind of recognition and appreciation, and they crave it.

The other thing we want to stress is that creating moments for kids doesn’t have to be dramatic, like a trip to Disney or a trophy for an achievement. Parents sometimes miss opportunities to create moments that are less flashy but just as meaningful. Sara Blakely, the billionaire founder of Spanx, says that she owes much of her resilience to a question her father would ask at the family dinner table: “What have you failed at this week?” And if Sara and her siblings didn’t have an answer to give, he’d be disappointed. That taught her not to fear or dread failure but to embrace it as evidence that you’re pursuing something you care about. So that’s a very simple moment—something any parent can create—that has a lifetime of significance.

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