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The Virtue of Shared Experience
David Rönnegard shares his experience with us.
Years ago I was attending a conference in Honolulu when one morning on Waikiki Beach I experienced the most beautiful sunrise. Alone. It was a stunning sight, and it made me feel terrible. How could this be? How could a lack of companionship transform an otherwise beautiful event into a depressing experience?
As we travel through life we learn more about ourselves and who we are. These insights come to us in bursts as we enjoy and cope with life’s highs and lows. Particular events force us to question and answer who we are. But such understanding doesn’t exist in a relational vacuum. We understand ourselves in part by recognizing how we are similar and different to others. The sad sunrise made me realize my deep need for shared experiences, but it has just dawned on me that we are not all like this. Some people seem perfectly fine on their own, while others need company to accentuate an event, or perhaps to even enjoy it at all. Is this just a difference of character traits among people, or is one disposition better than the other? At first sight it would appear that an inability to be satisfied with one’s own experiences is quite an existential handicap.
Recent psychological research suggests that shared experiences are amplified – both the good and the bad. For example, the sweetness or bitterness of a piece of chocolate is intensified when shared and compared with someone else. But such research is narrow in scope and masks both differences in types of experiences as well as individual differences in the magnitude of amplification. Can such variances be significant enough to be pathological? Is there something wrong with me?
The idea that we as a species are inherently social creatures will not surprise anyone. If we step back for a moment and put on our anthropological glasses, we can on a daily basis observe our fellow humans gazing at their televisions for hours bewitched by other humans interacting. This curious phenomenon is surely rooted in our own desire for interaction and a sense of belonging. It is no coincidence that social shunning has long been likened to a death penalty. But it is not the yearning for inclusiveness that I am primarily thinking about, but rather the character of shared vs solitary experiences. Are my experiences not good enough on their own?
I have previously written in Philosophy Now (‘Atheist in a Foxhole’, ‘The Party Without Me’) that the meaning of life, as I see it, resides with our shared experiences. Our loved ones are the objects of our affection as well as partners on life’s journey. In a certain sense, a life fully lived is in part lived through others. I have argued that this is what we are left with if we reject an appeal to a higher power to give our lives meaning. But perhaps I might be overstating my case if there is a wide range of psychological dispositions towards shared experiences.
Indeed, there is a broad spectrum of experiences that people find valuable and which give their lives meaning. A brisk walk through an enchanting forest, the smile on your friend’s face, pride on your graduation day. Clearly not all valuable experiences need to be shared, although many by their very nature do. But irrespective of what we value, the experience gets amplified if it is shared, albeit at different intensities. As such, sharing experiences makes them more significant, makes them more meaningful.
Nevertheless, the sharing of an experience is not only about amplification. Many of our most valuable moments are special precisely because they are shared experiences. The moment you got engaged; refurbishing an old boat with your son; getting caught horsing around with your best friend. These experiences assume their significance in the act of sharing. And this highlights that it isn’t sufficient for an event to be shared with just anyone to make it significant. Refurbishing a boat with a colleague is just a job. Getting caught horsing around with a stranger is just embarrassing. Who we share an experience with can be central to its meaning.
So what’s so great about shared experiences? Besides being some of our most memorable moments, and also amplifying our experiences, shared experiences have the virtue that they continue to be shared. For one thing, sharing allows the experience to be relived more vividly through mutual recollection and the telling of anecdotes. And for someone like myself, whose memory leaves a little something to be desired, it also serves the function of actual recollection. Sharing an experience affirms the reality of what is being witnessed. If I’ve had an experience but no one was there to share it, did it happen? The character of the experience, its sweetness or bitterness, is validated by another’s similar perception.
As an event is recollected over time, the totality of a shared experience can be distinguished from the initial experience. Bitter chocolate might taste more bitter when shared, getting busted with your friend might be a nuisance in the moment; but the lasting impression is sweeter by having been through it with someone else. As such a shared experience need not only be viewed in terms of circumscribed moments in time, but may also be viewed more broadly. Together with the select few (or special someone) who accompany us through life, there is a sense that more than you alone are bearing witness to your existence. By sharing our experiences there is someone other than ourselves who is aware of the sum total of our journey.
This temporal dimension of shared experiences also has the virtue of being one of the few ways we can become immortal. Because a shared experience doesn’t belong to us alone, it has the quality of living on once we are gone. By living on in the memories of those we leave behind, we do not get a new lease on life, but in a certain sense, the lease on the life we have had gets extended.
So is there something wrong with me, or you? Clearly being dependent on others to heighten our experiences and make them more meaningful makes us psychologically vulnerable. Our state of mind is not within our sole control, but contingent on being accompanied.
There are ways of mitigating this vulnerability. For example, meditation techniques can allow us to find contentment in our own headspace. Finding peace of mind in solitude can help us be less exposed to the contingencies of life. But such solitary solace surely cannot itself be what fundamentally brings our lives meaning.
If our lives have meaning it resides with us, but not necessarily as isolated islands of self-contentment. Rather, validation is provided by our companions. Our most memorable moments, the terrific and the tragic, are shared. The need to share experiences makes us vulnerable, but it might also be the meaning of life.
© Dr David Rönnegard 2017
David Rönnegard has a PhD in Philosophy from the London School of Economics, and is a researcher and teacher in corporate social responsibility in Stockholm.