Agree? “Defining Moments Are What Make Our Lives Memorable and Meaningful.”

Book cover of Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath

I’ve been a fan of the work of Dan Heath — and his brother and co-author Chip Heath — for years. They’ve written extraordinary books like Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard; Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work; and Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

Also, as someone who does a podcast with her sister — the “Happier” podcast — it’s interesting me to see two brothers collaborating as writers so successfully.

Their new book just hit the shelves. The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact is a fascinating book, on many levels. The book explains why certain brief experiences can elevate us, allow us to change, and stick in our memories — and how we have the power to shape and create those extraordinary moments. I got so many insights from this book, ones that I will use both in my work life and in my personal life.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded? 

Dan: That we shouldn’t wait for our “defining moments” to happen to us—we should be the author of them. We write about Eugene O’Kelly, who was 53 years old, a husband and father, and the CEO of the firm KPMG, when he learned that he had 3 golf-ball-sized tumors in his brain. There was no treatment. He had 3 months to live.

In his memoir, Chasing Daylight: How My Forthcoming Death Transformed My Life, he wrote about how he approached the final summer of his life. He resolved to “unwind” the relationships in his life, to bring them to a satisfying closure, one by one. With acquaintances, he would share reminiscences via email or phone. With friends, he’d plan “Perfect Moments”: a walk through Central Park. A great meal. A drive out of the city. These weren’t sad moments, although of course there was sadness in the air—they were celebrations of the friendships they’d shared. And as the summer progressed, he spent more and more Perfect Moments with his family.

Toward the end, he wrote: “I experienced more Perfect Moments and Perfect Days in two weeks than I had in the last five years, or than I probably would have in the next five years, had my life continued the way it was going before my diagnosis. Look at your own calendar. Do you see Perfect Days ahead? Or could they be hidden and you have to find a way to unlock them?”

It’s a heartbreaking memoir, but O’Kelly didn’t write it to break our hearts. He wrote it to warn us not to wait until our dying days to start creating the most important moments of our lives.

Ultimately, our conclusion is the same as O’Kelly’s: Defining moments are what make our lives memorable and meaningful, and they are ours to create. That’s what we hope people take away from The Power of Moments.

What’s something you know now about happiness, health, creativity, or productivity that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

That when things go wrong, it doesn’t really mean that things have gone wrong. We write about a woman, Lea Chadwell, who in her early 40s decided to pursue her fantasy of opening a bakery. And long story short, it made her crazy. The work stressed her out and made her realize that, “This fantasy is not a fantasy anymore. I don’t want this.” (When I talked to her, she used a phrase that made me laugh out loud: “It was like this albatross of butter around my neck.”)

At age 18, if something like that happens to you, all you can see is the failure. You’re crushed. But later in life, you start to realize that it’s as valuable to know what you don’t want, and what you can’t do, as it is to know the opposite.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.? 

Yes. Peter Singer’s book The Life You Can Save: How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty jolted me with its message that we have a moral responsibility to do more for the neediest people on the planet. (Experience the jolt yourself! Read this excerpt.) Causation is rarely so simple: A guy named Peter wrote some words on a page, and as a result of reading those words, my beliefs and behavior changed. Like, that same day. (And parenthetically, having had that experience as a reader gives me hope as an author that books can make a difference in people’s lives.)

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?
NOT cherishing the moment. We’ve all heard the advice to “stay in the moment,” to “cherish the moment.” It sounded like good advice to me. So I resolved to really cherish the hell out of the good times. To wring the last drop of goodness out of them. But what I found was that all the cherishing made me anxious. I’d be having a terrific time, and then suddenly I’d have these doubts: Am I CHERISHING this enough? Am I really PRESENT right now? And somehow the hand-wringing would make me aware that: This moment is going to end. And suddenly I’d find myself SAD ABOUT A HAPPY MOMENT. That’s just dumb.

As a result, I decided that I could not be trusted to “cherish.” These days, I am conscious about creating more “defining moments” while also trying to be more unconscious while they happen. In fact, what works for me, more than cherishing, is spending more time anticipating good times and more time reflecting on them. That extends the moment for me.

What are 3 simple things people can do in the next week to create “defining moments” in their lives?

(1) Write agratitude letterto someone who has made a positive difference in your life and, if possible, read it to them in person. Here’s how. Research shows that doing that can boost your happiness levels for as much as a month. There are many pleasures in the world that can spike your happiness levels for a few minutes or hours. Not many that last a month. (Not to mention the effect it has on the person you read the letter to!)

(2) “Break the script” in some part of your life that has grown too routine. As an example, you might turn your usual Saturday routine upside down: Go for a hike, or eat out at a new restaurant, or visit some friends you rarely see, or do all three. Research shows that novel experiences make time seem to slow down—we savor them more. [I write a lot about how novelty and challenge boost happiness in my own book, The Happiness Project.]

(3) Push beyond small talk with someone in your life. When someone asks you “How are you?”, and you’re just about to give the automatic answer, “Fine, how are you?”, take a breath. Then give the actual answer. Share something real—maybe something you’re struggling with. Trust that the other person will care and reciprocate with something real from their life. You may be amazed at how such a simple moment can deepen a relationship.

More on Dan Heath.



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