Why you need to sum up your summer ...

This summer, our family spent an inordinate amount of time at various doctors’ offices. Since sleepaway camp was canceled, I figured it was a good time to have teeth pulled and sinuses probed (I’m an awful mom, I know).

We went to at least 12 doctor appointments this summer. We had dentist, orthodontist, oral surgeon, pediatrician, allergist and ear nose and throat appointments. 

There were shots, scratch tests, blood draws, nose probes, teeth pulled and an amoxicillin allergic reaction. Not exactly a dream summer for two fourteen year olds.

Plus the end of August had us inside a lot due to smoke and haze from forest fires. In addition, I sat through a bunch of zoom meetings trying to figure out whether or not we should do hybrid or online school, stressing about school safety.

Photo by Catherine Larock

The cherry on top was that just a few days ago, my husband found out that the treatment center where he was clinical director is folding due to the pandemic. 

That was how our August ended.

If you were to ask me that requisite second-grade back-to-school question, how was your summer? I could easily answer that it was stressful, challenging, filled with doctor appointments, Zoom meetings, and the difficulties of a job loss.

But here’s what else happened this summer …

We went paddleboarding at least 12 times (one time in the moonlight!), we hung out with two sets of cousins, we spent two weeks at our family lakehouse waterskiing and wave riding, my twins came in first and second in a golf tournament, we learned how to wakesurf (twice!), we went on bike rides and hikes. We had umpteen dinners outside on our deck, relaxed in the hammock, swam in the river, and went to a socially distant music concert in the botanic gardens.

The sum total of my good experiences over the 3 months far outweigh the bad, but you can see how my brain could justify a more negative interpretation of summer based on how August ended.

Does it even matter how we sum up our summer?

If we’re wanting to live a happier and more fulfilling life, it actually does matter.

Our brains have quite a few cognitive traps that influence our wellbeing and our memories of time periods (such as summer) are one of them. 

As Princeton professor and Nobel Memorial Prize-winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman explains in peak-end theory, we have two different selves inhabiting our brains. 

One version of our self is referred to as our experiencing self. This is the self who experiences daily life. She eats food, takes a shower, drives to work, does her job well, cuddles with kids on the couch, goes to yoga and the other is our remembering self. She loves to tell stories and is our internal narrator and interpreter of our life events.

It’ll probably come as no surprise that where memory is concerned, our remembering self, the storyteller, is the one who is in charge.

This wouldn’t be an issue for our wellbeing if our remembering self loved to focus and reminisce about all the great things that happened all summer long, the s’mores we roasted, the family bike rides we took, the sunsets we watched.
Except more often than not, that’s not how our remembering self operates. In fact, she’s a bit of a drama queen.

Because as a matter of cognitive efficiency, she just uses two factors to sum up summer: our peak experience and how summer ended. That’s it. 

And FYI “peak experience” is defined as the moment of highest intensity, it doesn’t matter if it was a good or bad peak experience. If it was the moment of highest pain OR the moment of highest pleasure, it was the peak experience. 

In the mathematical equation that sums up our happiness, our brains not only confuse experience and memory, they underweight the cumulative total of daily life events and overweight the memories of a few key snippets in time.

Plus, the more dramatic those key events are, the more easily our remembering self is able to skew the whole equation in her favor.

Think about the best rock concert you’ve ever been to …

The rockstar makes an entrance, the crowd goes absolutely wild, you’re singing along to one of your all-time favorite songs. Midway through the concert, the artist tries out some new material or deep tracks no one knows, the energy dips, you feel just so-so about these new songs, but then the concert picks back up and crescendos with fireworks, pyrotechnics, and an encore medley of your favorites that has you and your Bic lighter app more fired up than you’ve ever been. 

Photo by GTR Photo, LLC

Compare that to the artist coming out on stage still fired up with the best pyrotechnics, fireworks, and a medley that you ADORE, but walks off stage without an encore and the last song is the low energy new material you’ve never heard of. 

In a moment to moment mathematical comparison of the two shows, you might have had just as much fun rocking out to your peak moment favorites and equal amounts of blah moments during the new stuff, but the fact that the show ended on the low note would have your interpretation of the entire event as just ho-hum.

Same with summer. 

You could do backflips to make summer the most incredible experience of all time, but if the peak moment of summer sucked and the last day of summer took a nosedive, all of those trampoline bouncing, sprinkler running, sparkler lighting, BBQ enjoying moments that might have comprised the majority of your summer are forgotten about. 

So how do we hack our happiness to focus more on the positive?
Well, it’s actually pretty simple. In positive psychology, we use savoring to tip the scales in favor of those moments worth remembering, rather than the ones we’d like to forget about.

Savoring is like mindfulness on steroids.

It not only puts your awareness and attention on what is happening, it adds on a layer of appreciation and a felt sense of gratitude for the moment.

What does this any of this have to do with photography?

You can use photography to sum up your summer and make sure you don’t paint the whole summer with the “oh it was so stressful and awful” brush. Your phone’s camera roll is one of the easiest and most effective ways to counteract this “peak-end” cognitive trap we so easily fall into. 

Try this idea and use your photos to sum up and savor your summer …
Directions: thumb through your camera roll between the dates of May 22 and September 7th, 2020. Throw a heart on at least 5 of your photos using these or similar prompts. Important note: you're not choosing picture-perfect photos, you're choosing ones that will help you savor.

1) Pick one photo of a moment that had you experiencing awe
2) Pick one photo of a moment that made you feel adventurous
3) Pick one photo of a moment that made you feel proud
4) Pick one photo of a moment that made you feel connected
5) Pick one photo of a moment that just makes you smile

Look back at these 5 photos. Catch yourself noticing moments you probably would’ve forgotten about. Catch yourself laughing out loud as you scroll through your memories. Catch yourself summing up summer through a more positive lens.

Write for 5 minutes (total) about why you chose each photo and what you appreciate about the moments you picked.

Bonus points for sharing on social (tag me), creating a collage for phone wallpaper or hanging them up where you can see and savor often

There are over 600 million moments in a lifetime. Let’s make sure we take a few minutes to remember more than just the moments that keep us up at night.

Sum up your summer and create a scrapbook for your soul!

Lizzie Larock

PS The Life Feast starts in September ... are you on the waitlist?


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