Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues have shown that what we remember about the pleasurable quality of our past experiences is almost entirely determined by two things: how the experiences felt when they were at their peak (best or worst), and how how they felt when they ended. This “peak-end” rule of Kahneman’s is what we use to summarize the experience, and then we rely on that summary later to remind ourselves of how the experience felt. The summaries in turn influence our decisions about whether to have that experience again. and factors such the proportion of pleasure to displeasure during the course of the experience or how long the experience lasted, have almost no influence on our memory of it.
I can feel myself making a “peak-end” summary of my Peace Corps experience in The Gambia. How I feel about the two years I spent in West Africa is completely based upon a few highs and the not so many lows I felt there, and my last few weeks there. This is not the reality of my experience there. It is the reality of my memory of the experience. It may reduce the experience but it doesn’t make it any less real.
I often think I want to get back to West Africa as soon as possible. I begin to idealize it, based on my high points and how comfortable I felt there in my last few months. I have to remind myself it was not paradise and the experience was a struggle and full of difficulties. I then begin to think that the struggle and difficulties is what I most enjoyed about it. Controlling your memory rationally is also a struggle.