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In our lives, there are some moments we will remember for decades, and others that expire almost as quickly as they arrive. Moments are not created equal. That’s a simple, even obvious, insight, but in many aspects of life, we ignore it completely.

Consider the Magic Castle Hotel, which as of press time was the top-rated hotel in Los Angeles on TripAdvisor, just ahead of the iconic Hotel Bel-Air and the Four Seasons Hotel at Beverly Hills. People have incredibly fond memories of the Magic Castle: Out of over 3,000 reviews on TripAdvisor, 94% of guests rate the hotel as either “excellent” or “very good.”

There’s a puzzle about the hotel’s ranking, though: If you scanned the photos of the resort online, you would never conclude, “That’s one of the best hotels in L.A.” An interior courtyard features a pool that might qualify as Olympic size, if the Olympics were being held in your backyard. The rooms are dated, the furnishings are spare, and most walls are bare. In fact, even the word “hotel” seems like a stretch–the Magic Castle is actually a converted two-story apartment complex from the 1950s, painted yellow. It looks, in short, like a respectable budget motel. But it’s a far cry from the Four Seasons. How could it be one of the top-rated hotels in L.A.?

Let’s start with the cherry red phone mounted to a wall near the pool. You pick it up and someone answers, “Hello, Popsicle Hotline.” You place an order, and minutes later, a staffer wearing white gloves delivers your cherry, orange, or grape popsicles to you at poolside. On a silver tray. For free.

Then there’s the Snack Menu, a list of goodies–ranging from Kit-Kats to root beer to Cheetos—that can be ordered up at no cost. There’s also a Board Game Menu and a DVD Menu, with all items loaned for free. Three times a week, magicians perform tricks at breakfast. Did we mention you can drop off unlimited loads of laundry for free washing?

What the Magic Castle has figured out is that, to delight customers, you need not obsess over every detail. Customers will forgive small swimming pools and underwhelming room décor, as long as you deliver some magical peak moments. The surprise about great service experiences is that they are mostly forgettable and occasionally remarkable.

And couldn’t the same thing be said about life as a whole? Reflect on your favorite memories. Dancing at your wedding, seeing your newborn child for the first time. Also less dramatic ones, like spending a semester abroad in Spain. Or working with a mentor who brought out the best in you. Or laughing with sunburned friends at a beach resort’s swim-up bar.

The first thing to notice about these memories is that they’re not like cognitive movies that you load up and watch beginning to end. They’re snippets of scenes. Moments.

The second thing to notice is that those moments aren’t chosen “fairly.” You don’t recall the lumpy bed at the beach resort and the fitful sleep it caused—even though you spent more time in bed than at the bar. You don’t dwell on the first lonely, miserable month you spent in Spain. Your memory is highly selective.

Psychologists have discovered that, in assessing the experiences we’ve had, we don’t average our minute-by-minute sensations. Rather, we tend to ignore or forget most of what happened and focus instead on a few particular moments: the peaks, the pits, and the transitions.

We are accustomed to thinking about relationships in terms of time: The longer the relationship endures, the closer it must grow. But relationships don’t proceed in steady, predictable increments. If we can create the right kind of moment, relationships can change in an instant. That’s what happened at Stanton–the teachers and parents shared a brief but intense moment of insight and connection. That moment wasn’t responsible for the turnaround at Stanton–that would shortchange the thousands of hours invested by students, teachers, and parents. But certainly it was the catalyst for the change. And each visit lasted about an hour.

Moments are not created equal. Our experiences are mostly forgettable and occasionally remarkable. But those remarkable moments don’t create themselves. What if we didn’t just remember the standout moments of our lives and work but made them? We can be the designers of moments that deliver elevation and insight and pride and connection. These exceptional minutes and hours and days—they are what make life meaningful. And they are ours to create.

“The peak-end rule is a psychological heuristic in which people judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its peak (i.e. its most intense point) and at its end, rather than based on the total sum or average of every moment of the experience.”

According to the Heaths:

“When people assess an experience, they tend to forget or ignore its length. Instead, they seem to rate the experience based on two key moments: (1) the best or worst moment, known as the peak and (2) the ending [..] What’s indisputable is that when we assess our experiences, we don’t average our minute-by-minute sensations.”

Kahneman attributes this cognitive tendency to evolutionary purposes. He states, “Memory was not designed to measure ongoing happiness, or total suffering. For survival, you really don’t need to put a lot of weight on duration of experiences. It is how bad they are and whether they end well, that is really the information you need as an organism.”

Kahneman describes two types of “selves,” the experiencing self and the narrating self. The experiencing self is our moment to moment awareness and being present. This mode of thinking is intuitive, quick, and unconscious. The experiencing self does not remember events, and each moment of the experiencing self lasts 3 seconds.

The narrating self is what collects and integrates our experiences into a story. It reviews our experiences and creates narratives that we experience as our memory. Our narrating self does a lot of editing and interpretation. During this process, changes in our stories occur.

As mentioned, the duration neglect is a critical component of peak-end theory. According to Kahneman, what gets remembered are significant, intense moments of the experience, regardless of the length of time. The length of time of an experience does not get interpreted to our narrating self. It seems we do not make rational calculations of our experiences of pain or pleasure. Our memories are defined by the intense moments or peaks as well as the ending rather than how we felt most of the time of the experience.

Kahneman identifies the difference in the perspective of these two “selves” is how time is interpreted. Research indicates that the length of time of an experience has little effect on the real memory. Kahneman describes how the length of a vacation has little impact on how it is recalled. In other words, a two-week vacation has little benefit over a one week vacation because new memories are not interpreted and added to the narrative or recollection of the experience.

At the time, it was a painful thing to go through, and colonoscopies used to last ... in a study that we did, the shortest one was four minutes, I think, and the longest one was an hour and a quarter, so there's a tremendous range in terms of how long they last. There is variability within a colonoscopy. Sometimes it really hurts, and other times it's just unpleasant.

In a couple of big experiments, we had somebody next to the patient, and every 60 seconds they would ask the patient, "How much does it hurt now?" on a scale from 0 to 10, I think. You get a profile of the patient's pain, and you know exactly what went on, so you know how long the colonoscopy was, and you know ... then later, and in many different ways, we asked them about the memory they had kept from the colonoscopy. What was left with them?

It turned out that what was left was determined completely differently from what we would have thought. It was simply an average of the worst moment in the colonoscopy, and how badly it hurt when the procedure ended.

Those two variables really gave you excellent prediction of, when you ask people, "Would you want to have another one of those, or would you rather have another painful procedure?" Or you ask them, "How much total pain was it? How bad was the whole experience?"

There was one variable that had essentially no effect on that, and that's how long the colonoscopy was. That astonished us, how clear it was.

That's led me into a lot of thinking about what I call the Remembering Self and the Experiencing Self. That is, you have the Experiencing Self, the one who lived through the colonoscopy, but the Remembering Self is the one that keeps a score -- assigns a score and keeps a score.

Another interesting thing is that if we make our decisions, it's the Remembering Self that makes the decisions, and it doesn't always do what's best for the Experiencing Self.

Daniel Kahneman, psychologist and Nobel laureate, tells a similar story about a man enraptured by a symphony recording that is ruined by a hideous screech — a scratch on the vinyl — in the final moments. “But the experience was not actually ruined,” writes Kahneman, “only the memory of it.” After all, both concerts were almost complete when interrupted. The lived experience had been unblemished until the final moments. The remembered experience was awful.

When we recall things — a concert, a holiday, a bout of flu — we do not play out the recollection minute by minute like a movie in our minds. Instead, we tell ourselves a little story about what happened. And these stories have their own logic in which the order of events makes a difference. Consider Jenson Button’s 2009 season in Formula One. The British racing driver easily outpaced his rivals in the first seven races of the season, building a vast lead. Then, as the relative performance of the cars changed, Button failed to win any of the remaining 10 races. His rival Sebastian Vettel couldn’t quite catch him, though, and Button became champion with a limp fifth place finish in the penultimate race. One pundit defended Button against his many doubters with the feeble line: “There have been many less gifted world champions than Jenson Button.” But imagine if the order of results had been reversed. After being beaten in almost every one of the first 10 races by Vettel, Button would have mounted a magnificent comeback, sealing his world championship with a victory in the final race. The same results in a different order would have told a very different story. And the story matters.

Peak moments.  

But we then need to really go past this automatic response and evaluate - is this really going to be painful or I just it would be? Is this pain bearable. And is it worth it?

We can all think of many examples of how we end up making the wrong decision because we didn't evaluate pain correctly. Exercise might bring initial pain, but it is almost always bearable, and your body adapts and becomes healthier. Discipline could carry initial pain, compelling you to do something not so enjoyable or to stop doing something enjoyable. But not being disciplined causes a larger quantum of future pain. And of course our favourite example - change. Change is painful. As we learnt above, change causes pain because we lose the status quo, and we lose certainty, and we lose some amount of control. But if we never made changes to our lives, well our life story will simply just not be very good. 

Chip and Dan Heath

“When people assess an experience, they tend to forget or ignore its length. Instead, they seem to rate the experience based on two key moments: (1) the best or worst moment, known as the peak and (2) the ending [..] What’s indisputable is that when we assess our experiences, we don’t average our minute-by-minute sensations.”

They suggest that a peak moment requires at least one of the four elements below, with the best having all four:

  • Elevation: these are moments of happiness that transcend the normal course of events through sensory pleasures and surprise

  • Pride: these are moments that capture us at our best; whether it be moments of achievement or moments of courage

  • Insight: these are our eureka moments; they change our understanding of ourselves of the world and give us a moment of sobering clarity

  • Connection: these are moments which are social in nature; think weddings.

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