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.