My wife and I let go of our fourteen-year-old cocker spaniel Scotch on Tuesday.

I borrowed an evaluation framework from a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist to appraise his life. Scotch was happy in life if—

He spent most of his time engaged in activities that he would rather continue than stop, little time in situations he wished to escape, and—very important because life is short—not too much time in a neutral state in which he would not care either way.

Scotch spent a lot of time chomping on things, not as a carnivorous predator would, but as a cocker spaniel with teething issues would. As a puppy, he continued to eat the basket he would sleep in, little by little, until it was there no more. Once, a friend’s five-year-old son gave him a squeaky hippo. He kept nibbling at it like a school of piranhas until it vanished a day later. He would love shredding stress balls to bits, as if to challenge us, ‘How dare you think you need one in life while I’m here?’

Scotch enjoyed himself socially with members of the human species. He would walk up to you, sniff you, lick your legs, and, until his own legs could prop him up, dry-hump you (even though he was neutered). A telling sign that he enjoyed the company of his human friends was that he would literally be the center of the party. He would plonk himself in the mise en scène** **and force the cast, often inebriated, to step over him or go around him. Scotch was less himself around members of the canine species. He would expect them to give him a wide berth but then that time was, as a percentage of his life time, a tiny sliver.

And finally, for most of his life, Scotch steered clear of neutral. He was either in top gear—bounding down passages and bouncing off surfaces during games of fetch. Or when not gamboling, he loved his sleep and would slip into a vegetative state outside his peak hours. During those times, if the floor had to be swept or the furniture had to be moved, you would be foolish to expect Scotch to dislodge himself. He expected you to understand enough to just push him to the side and get on with your housekeeping. It was only COVID that introduced him to neutral (shorn of human company and trips) but that was much later in life, when he was in his twilight years. So, all things considered, neutral didn’t suit him either.

I admit I have assembled no dream team of psychologists and economists in coming to these conclusions but by all measurable accounts, Scotch was happy. How can you dispute my evaluation?

**A bizarre discovery **

When Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman started studying how we experience and remember pain and pleasure and the nature of well-being and happiness, he saw signs around him that suggested to him that the way we remember is an unreliable compass for making decisions about things we want to experience in life. And that we’re not looking to maximize pleasure and minimize pain in every moment—or, we would be forever in a pool with a martini in hand.

He ran experiments that yielded strange data, such as:

Patients’ self-reported minute-by-minute experience of pain during colonoscopies (a painful procedure in the early 1990s) did not match their final assessment of the total amount of pain experienced during the procedure. The final assessment suggested that they preferred longer procedures and a higher overall quantum of pain.

Participants when asked to choose between keeping their hands dipped in cold water (14℃) for 60 seconds versus hands dipped in cold water (same temperature) for 60 seconds and then in slightly warmer water for an additional 30 seconds preferred to repeat the longer version of the exercise.

Were these people masochistic? Were they not mentally intact? No. Kahneman distilled his findings down to two things:

Peak-end effect - People judge an experience by just two points—the most intense part of the experience (its emotional peak, whether good or bad) and its end.

Duration neglect - People seem to ignore the duration of the experience in their overall judgment.

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The truth is that humans are not designed to savor the moment, with or without camera phones. We are wired to remember.

Kahneman’s findings implied that memories are maps of memories are maps of reality, not reality. Memories don’t have a one-to-one correspondence with reality, and thank heavens for that. Or our heads would explode with irrelevant details and our movies would be the most mundane reality shows ever.

Our memories don’t follow any kind of a consistent scale either. Our brains tend to record emotional peaks and troughs much more than emotional flatland. They also recall the end more deeply.

A patchy scale makes for a dubious map. It makes us unreliable narrators of our own story. We mis-remember.

So what should we optimize for—our lived experiences or the memories of those experiences? You see, they’re different things.

👉We may forget months of disgruntlement at the job and recall only the celebratory send-off at the end.

👉We may enjoy several seasons of our favorite web series but only ever talk about its botched-up finale.

👉Our national team may win a world cup for the first time in a culmination of years of blood and sweat but the only thing we’ll remember is a forced kiss.

Two selves

The peak-end effect and duration neglect surprised Kahneman. If the memory of an experience is not an honest summary of the feelings evoked during the experience, perhaps there are two selves at work:

_An experiencing self that does the living and a remembering self that does the decision-making. _

Feelings are real-time reports of what we go through from moment to moment. Yet, when answering life satisfaction surveys, we don’t browse through these reports, average our hourly evaluation scores, and confirm our answers. We say what comes to mind, and, thanks to the peak-end rule and duration neglect, what comes to mind is a global rating fed by the emotional peaks and recent events.

Any question on life satisfaction therefore appeals to the remembering self, bypassing the experiencing self that felt all those feelings moment to moment. Much the same way, any decision on a future experience relies on our past impressions of similar experiences (or what we hear from others), but not on the experiences themselves.

It’s like we go through an entire experience lasting a meaningful chunk of time, tell a stranger about only two points in it, and then let her make future decisions for us based on those two moments.

We are all memory-impaired. It sounds bizarre, but it’s only acceptable perhaps because we all are.

❓That brings us all to a crossroads: Should we design our life for experiences OR for memories of those experiences?

What the world remembers, it rewards but…

On the day of, Scotch’s vet of several years who saw him through asked for chairs to make us comfortable, handed us tissues as we cried our eyes out, asked us if we wanted him to ourselves for one last time, and even slipped in a joke to distract us as she injected the pentobarbital.

The emotional heft of nothing that she did was obvious. It had to be felt. Had she instead waived off our parking fee, handed us a fat discount, or made the story more shareable in any obvious way, anyone would have called that going above and beyond.

That would also have been a lot easier to do (and worthier of a recognition by her employer).

The world takes more seriously the job of commoditizing memory-making. But the value in elevating the lived experience through empathy is left to chance, and to individual grace. Ironically, it is by elevating the lived experience that those in service can give recipients the best memories. Just as we received in our lowest moment.

How to design a life

Days before he passed away from cancer in 1996, psychologist Amos Tversky (who launched the field of behavioral economics with Kahneman) wrote this to his son Oren.

I feel that in the last few days we have been exchanging anecdotes and stories with the intention that they will be remembered, at least for a while. I think there is a long Jewish tradition that history and wisdom are being transmitted from one generation to another not through lectures and history books, but through anecdotes, funny jokes, and appropriate jokes.

When my wife and I made the decision to let Scotch go, we did not know of Tversky’s profound words. Yet, we knew we wanted to give ourselves and all those who loved Scotch space to say goodbye. The only departure from Amos’ template was in our sharing of less-than-appropriate jokes about Scotch.

And just as well, even though we could no longer change our experience of him any more, we could give ourselves something sublime to remember him by, at least for a while.

Sharing our memories of him, we ended up with a week full of campfire stories, now collected in a book. I had a sense that early on Scotch must’ve had a hunch that his human friends had minds like sieves. He figured the antidote to his forgetful masters was filling every moment with beauty and grace and love.

When people do things for people it can sometimes take the form of doing things that embellish the recipients’ stories, without as much concern for their lived experience. You can bequeath to someone an inheritance and change the narrative of their life forever, without ever spending a day with them or asking them how they were.

It can be hard to care for those who have lost the ability to construct memories. If they can no longer maintain a narrative of their life, what can we possibly do for them?

Living with and caring for is much harder and that’s just what Scotch did. He gave us the best of him, no matter what. He was our companion in wartime and peacetime. He did not design our user experience such that it left us happy at important points along the way and made us want to come back because of those carefully-timed highs.

His only yardstick was happiness in the moment, every moment. He asked for and delivered joy every moment. We saw that in a wagging tail, in salty licks, and, when there was food involved, in dogged pawing. That’s the story. The only one there was and will ever be.

PS: Every day of his life, Scotch put our experiencing and remembering selves in a quandary. Should we enjoy the moment with him or capture it for posterity? I think we got to do both, or rather he gave us enough to savor in the moment as well as cherish later. Here are a few vignettes from his story:

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Memories are maps of experience not drawn to scale. Memories don’t have a 1:1 correspondence with reality, and thank heavens for that. Our heads would explode with irrelevant details and our movies would be the worst reality shows ever.

But neither do memories respect any kind of a consistent scale when recording reality. The scale is patchy, the mapping unreliable, but predictably so.

These findings in themselves would not have been as alarming had it not been for the fact that such spurious memories of events influence our future choices.

We may eschew an almost perfect degustation just because the final course was underwhelming. We may spare ourselves the wonderful experience of being pet parents because the end months were hard. We may choose to not pursue something hard in our adult life because we remember the feeling of failure too well from childhood.

I’ve a theory for why elite performers who are ambitious and obsessive otherwise may get along better with pets than with people. Why they may not feel understood by fellow humans, even friends and family, but somehow feel accepted by their pet.

Pay attention to these words from Alex Honnold, the first and only man in history to free solo El Capitan, a 3000-feet near-vertical rock face in the Yosemite Valley in California, USA. It is from the documentary Free Solo, made on his 2017 climb. More importantly, these words were recorded before his attempt.

For Sanni [his then girlfriend] the point of life is, like, happiness. To be with people that make you feel fulfilled and to have a good time. For me it's all about performance. The thing is anybody can be happy and cozy. Nothing good happens in the world by being happy and cozy. You know, like nobody achieves anything great because they're happy and cozy.

Happiness is not the most important thing for Honnold. Excellence is. We may not share his obsession but we’re familiar with the drive behind it. There are things we pursue in life that may not be enjoyable moment to moment but leave us more satisfied with our lives after. Pursuing an education, learning a new skill, even having children—all fit into that bucket.

What about feeling alive while doing something? Alex Honnold felt most alive when free soloing. He wasn’t going for better memories. He was going for a better now. Scotch made us all feel more alive. Around him, no matter your mental state, he could always take you higher

In their deepest personal moments, writers, journalists, painters, photographers, and creators are thinking of how to capture that experience for posterity. They’re thinking of how they want the moment to be remembered. In doing so, could they be soaking in less of the moment? Or by recording it in a format of their choice do they allow themselves to feel the experience even more deeply? It is a common notion that artists and creators feel more than the commoners among us. But are they relying on their remembering selves to give them closure and meaning? No matter their choice of recording device—books, films, paintings, art—their goal is to exalt their evaluative well-being. To remember more deeply.

Saving Private Ryan last scene

In a somewhat meta way, Two Selves, the concluding section of Kahneman’s masterpiece Thinking, Fast and Slow, is my favorite part of the book. Perhaps because the theoretical grounding is already laid in the initial sections which allowed me to get more or perhaps because the choice of topic and writing style indeed is more accessible, the final section ends the book on a high note for me.


He was fourteen and a bit. That bit was the painful bit. Nights spent in anxiety (the vets called it dementia), incontinence, and a body that gave up a little more every day. It was intense for him, and for us.

At some point, it was clear to us that we could not guarantee him that we could better the quality of his future experiences. We could only, if we tried, put a shine on his future memories. So we did.

If we wanted to reduce his memory of the pain, we had to reduce the peak intensity of his pain.

Once we decided the day of his passing, we called family and friends and gave them a week to make sure they said their goodbyes to him and spoil him proper. Despite all the drugs, wrapped in cheese, that we gave him, he was in pain.

We had to pick a question to ask. We decided against ‘Does it hurt?’ We chose ‘How was it after all?’

Memories are the residue of life lived and and it matters what the residue tasted like even if the drink had turned bitter.

–Documentaries, films, biographies, are all odes to the remembering self. They are the answer to All things considered, what do you make of this life?

–Life is an event that we can remember (reminisce) while the experience is going on

—A story is told by our remembering selves. We could no longer change his experience of life. We could try to give him better memories. And in much the same way, we could no longer change our experience of him any more. But we could give ourselves fonder memories. We could give ourselves stories about Scotch

We can feel pity for someone who lived a happy life but suffered in his last few months. Somehow the end disproportionately sways the narrative and we want our narratives to be good. So we decided to do something about the end.

—Scotch put our experiencing and our remembering selves in a quandary while he was alive. Should we enjoy the moment with him or capture it for posterity? Should we just have a good time right now or bottle this moment up to sip from later? It was like we were on vacation and we had to choose between the landscape and the camera. Only it was like this all the time so we got plenty of opportunities to just be in the moment and plenty more to freeze it for a hungry time.

Now the vacation has ended and we’ve with us a treasure trove of pictures and videos. But still were they to be wiped out tomorrow we would only be a little poorer because there are memories aplenty.

At the end of the vacation, all pictures and videos will be destroyed. Furthermore, you will swallow a potion that will wipe out all your memories of the vacation.

How would this prospect affect your vacation plans? How much would you be willing to pay for it, relative to a normally memorable vacation?

As much. Because I know that the experiencing self was sated. Through accidents, COVID, health scares, and depression, Scotch was just the same. His love for us was unwavering. Every time we came home, no matter if we did so to pick up keys we had left behind, he was there with his licks and a wagging tail.

—-Given the natural limitations of human memory, perhaps a real-time recording of events in the form of a journal would offer a more accurate reflection of the experiencing self. So that we make decisions for the experiencing self and not the remembering self.

Yet doing so is problematic because memories—not experiences— form the basis of our future decisions (including about our pets). For experiences where some pain is unavoidable, which is anything in life, we may need to decide whether it is more important to optimize our experiences or memories.

—How would you like to be remembered? Asked Brian Chesky to himself two weeks before AirBnB’s IPO in 2020 when 80% of the business had vanished in eight weeks thanks to COVID

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