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Sentimentality and the Present

We calibrate our actions to happiness. Which is to say, we generally do the things that we believe will bring us the greatest net happiness over time.

Unfortunately, the actions we take can result in less happiness and more discouragement, dissatisfaction, and despair. This commonly results from a misunderstanding of the relationship between sentimentality and the present.

Sentimentality is a prediction of how we’ll feel in the future. We prime for nostalgia by making a guess about the wants and feelings of a future potential self, one that maybe misses this restaurant or perhaps regrets leaving that relationship. We take photos to assuage these maybe hurt feelings, and cling to mementos to ensure possible future longings have something upon which to center.

A focus on the present, on the other hand, manifests as a greater concern about the here and now. It’s an embrace of the short-term experience, what’s actually happening versus what may happen at some point, and makes no predictions. It’s the result of feeling, doing, and experiencing, rather than assuming, anticipating, and worrying.

It’s that last word in particular, ‘worrying,’ that I associate most with sentimentality. People collect and maintain and stress over the strangest things, all in the pursuit of some potential happiness, some unknowable ‘maybe’ that will justify the storage space rented, the hours lost, the stomach acid churned.

And this is a shame, because such concerns often result in having less attention to spend on the present. Sentimentality often means ignoring those you care about now in hopes of having the right people around you someday. It means missing out on fully experiencing a moment today, in order to take the right series of photos to remind yourself what’s happened, tomorrow. It means collecting souvenirs of events at the expense of actually taking part in the action.

It’s no wonder, then, that sentiment is often a grossly distorted image of the past. It’s a picture taken by someone who wasn’t truly there, wasn’t fully experiencing that which they were photographing. It’s a xerox of a moment, lacking the fidelity of a true memory and warping our perception of each new ‘present’ as a result. Because what ‘now’ could possibly compete with a blurred ‘then,’ with all the blemishes and scars softened by time and flawed remembering, all the context blinked away?

For me, a happy life is more about the present and less about sentiment. Reminders and keepsakes can still be acquired, but ideally only after the fact, not as a primary goal. To reverse that order is akin to photographing food without ever tasting a bite.

Update: April 19, 2017

I’ve written elsewhere that focusing on sentiment over experience is like viewing the world through the lens of you smartphone, with pre-applied sepia-toned filters and a composition that edits out the challenging parts.

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Stack for Serendipity

I’m sometimes told that I published a piece of work at exactly the right time. A new book, blog post, or newsletter arrived at the very moment a reader was thinking about the same topic, and I helped provide the right words, insight, or even just a kick out the door to motivate them toward their next step.

I love when this happens. Not because I think I had much to do with them taking those next steps — I might help strike a spark, but they provide the fuel and stoke it into a fire — but because it’s an example of how we can perform what seem to be feats of magic just by approaching communication in a certain way.

‘Serendipity’ refers to a chance circumstance or happening that bears positive results. A blog post about minimalism published at the exact moment you’re thinking of simplifying your life can seem serendipitous, as if the world is trying to tell you something, maybe trying to help you make some kind of decision.

There’s nothing mystical about such an alignment, though. It is perhaps practical magic in that you can calibrate yourself to catalyze more fortuitous flukes, and to garner more of your own. It’s all a matter of how you communicate and how you listen.

I try to stack the deck for serendipity by reaching out to people in myriad ways, though most people will only ever see one or two of these communication channels; the ones that apply to them. But by spreading messages in which I believe via different media, and even revamping the messages to be expressed at different lengths (a book and a tweet are very different delivery systems, but can achieve similar ends), I’m able to plant far more seeds in far more places, increasing the chance that some of them will grow.

Similarly, I work hard to follow and connect with people who I believe have something to offer me in terms of knowledge, life experience, perspective, or even just entertainment. The result is that I find myself benefiting from seemingly serendipitous moments all the time. And again, there’s nothing magical about it: when I’m thinking hard about a particular topic, chances are someone in my carefully cultivated network has thoughts on the subject that can help me break through to some new inspiration or revelation.

That serendipity is not magic means we can stack the deck if we like, and benefit from such moments more frequently. It’s not something you can control in an absolute way — sometimes inspiration never comes, and sometimes it only arrives at the wrong moments — but you can adjust the odds so that the right ideas end up in the right places at the right time more often than seems likely.

Consider how you might stack for serendipity, and then make the investment. Not only will you hear the words you need to hear more frequently, but you’ll more often say the words someone else needs to hear when they need to hear them, as well.

Update: April 19, 2017

I later learned there’s a name for that tendency to see more of the model of car you just bought or to see more of what seem to be vital messages relevant to your concerns and considerations: the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon.