Reflection on the past and satisfaction with life

The Roman god Janus looks ahead and looks backward at the same time. So do you and I.

Your past is what makes you you.

When you look back on your past, how satisfied are you with your life? 1 = life is yucky. 7 = life is great. Pick a number.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Did you pick your number? C’mon. Play with me. Satisfaction in life should be among your top priorities. Pick a number.

You can raise your number by leading a more satisfying life, by helping others, making significant accomplishments, pursuing a noble cause, and being fully engaged.

Or you can raise your number by changing your interpretation of your past. You can never recall the past in its entirety. You have to make do with an impression. You can shape that impression.

We once thought our memories were a collection of past nows. We’ve found otherwise.

Memories are made of this

Your brain doesn’t store memories. It stores what memories are made of: fragments and patterns and smells and sounds and what-not. You don’t “recall” memories as if they were a package; you reconstitute them, reassembling the pieces every time you recollect something.

When you reflect back on your life, you assemble an image of who you were at the time, what you’ve accomplished, and where you were headed. Your brain scrambles these bits and pieces into a coherent story you tell yourself. Because your current beliefs and understandings shape the re-telling, your memory of an event diverges from what went on at the time.

Your brain has rewired its circuits since the original memorization took place, so its retelling of the memory usually includes fresh interpretations of how things came down and why. Like a resume, it’s not out and out falsification but nonetheless tends to take a rosy view of things past. The memory of an experience can be better than the original experience itself.

Perception is reality. You can consciously reshape your memories. You can improve your satisfaction with life — by reinforcing positive memories and downplaying negatives. I’ll give you an example.

Imaginary reality

When I was four years old, my family drove from Palo Alto to Yellowstone National Park. I remember feeding marshmallows and Necco wafers to deer, a bear scratching the roof of our Hudson while begging for food, the Old Faithful Geyser, a bottomless pool, Yellowstone Lodge, a rag-tag bunch of American Indians with a teepee, and bubbling cauldrons of colorful water with odd names like the Devil’s Lemonade.

When I fed the deer, I was wearing a plaid jacket; the friend who was with me wore a brown leather jacket.

Hold it! I don’t really remember that. A jacket I was wearing on a snowy day when I was four? I remember a photograph of that. I remember an image but it’s wedged into my memory as my perception at the time. And the bear scratching the roof of the car? I’m recalling my mother telling the story rather than remembering the bear on my own. How much of what I remember is not the product of direct experience?

Our satisfaction in life is not the product of what we’ve done in our lives but the effect of the story of what we’ve done that we tell ourselves.

Photographic Memory

In an average year, I snap 3,000 photos of travels, friends, events, food, nature, and whatever else passes in front of my visual field.

In 2011, I transferred my favorite 50 photographs of the year to a 9″ electronic picture frame in my office. Whenever I walk into the room, my gaze turns to memorable meals, fun in Rio, joking with my Internet Time Alliance pals, Chur, the Monterey Aquarium, Jerry’s Retreat in Asheville, the Field Museum, Falling Water, Flirt the Wonder Dog, our cottage in Carmel, veggies on the grill, with Harold on assignment, New England in snow, Big Sur River, Firenze, Pebble Beach Concours, Venice, the Art Institute, dachshunds, Laguna Niguel with Clark and Jane, Krakov, Vegas, Palm Springs, Overlap, Underground Seattle, and happy friends. 10 seconds a photo.

Here’s the 2011 slide show. You can guess what I remember from 2011; it’s heavily influenced these particular scenes.


Memories of good times drive out memories of bad times. You won’t find photos of flat tires, boring events, or stomach aches. Am I tricking myself? Probably a little. If it results in a more satisfying life, I’ll go for it.

Reflecting on the past also slows the passage of time. I’m referring to my experience of time, not what’s measured by my watch and calendar. Without reflection, I’d have said 2011 was over in a flash. Not much happened. But if I think back to walking the beach in Carmel, taking in the Picasso exhibit in Seattle, and braving the snow in New England, I see that I experienced a lot. That takes time. The more milestones you remember passing, the longer the journey seems.

I just took a break to look at the 2,844 photos I’ve posted online this year. I tagged 87 photos that brought back pleasant memories.


My selections for the first ten months of 2012 show what I get enjoyment from: friends, food, travel, and art. I’ll download these into my electronic picture frame and let them go to work on my head. Rather than replace the 2011 photos, I think I’ll just add them to the stack.

Photos help me reflect on the past. A journal works, too. Conversations about pleasing experiences work.

A positive mental attitude shapes how you look at the past as well as how to imagine the future.