The End of the Story Is Not the Story

Getting past unhappy endings.

Posted Jun 20, 2018

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman distinguishes between the experiencing self and the remembering self. The experiencing self feels events in the present, whereas the remembering self looks back and experiences the memories of these events.  Notably, we experience events consistently and fully throughout, but we remember events primarily in terms of how they end. 

Suppose we undergo a dental procedure that proceeds uneventfully – until the end, when it finishes with 5 minutes of moderate pain. We then go to the dentist a second time and undergo a similar procedure, but with 10 minutes of moderate pain in the middle and no pain at the end. Even though we experienced half as much pain with the first procedure, we will remember it as more painful because the pain came at the end. 

Or we go to a movie that's enjoyable and engaging throughout, except for a disappointing ending. We may later remember that movie as largely unenjoyable, even though most of our experience was favorable. In contrast, a mediocre movie with an uplifting, joyous ending may be remembered as a good time. 

Source: en.wikipedia

The same effect happens with summer vacations, college courses, and other extended events. Shakespeare was right when he said "all’s well that ends well."  But by implication, an unwell ending means that all is not well.

Why do endings disproportionately influence our memory for an entire experience?

1) One reason is that endings can bestow meaning on an entire event, and we then remember this overall meaning. 

If a three-point-shot at the end of a close basketball game determines who wins and who loses, that shot gives the game meaning. Even though spectators probably experienced many exciting plays during the course of the game, the ending understandably becomes most prominent to the remembering self. Similarly, a political election gains its meaning from the final vote count, even though there were important decisions and events along the way.

2) Another reason we emphasize endings is that we look to narrative art forms to structure our lives. We fit our life events into defined narrative categories.

Most movies, novels, short stories, and epic poems move toward a satisfying ending, a meaningful conclusion that resonates beyond the story. Endings are difficult to write precisely because of this obligation for narrative closure. Hemingway knew this when he wrote forty-seven different endings to A Farewell to Arms before finally choosing one.

Source: commons.wikimedia

Last impressions last. And in art, we only get one chance to make a last impression. In life, however, we don’t have the obligation for a masterful conclusion.

3) Still another reason we emphasize endings is the myth of forever, which is often invoked with relationships and careers. When marriages end in divorce, they may be interpreted and remembered as “failed” – even if they created happy years and healthy children along the way. If someone is laid off or fired, a productive career may be tainted by the abrupt and unhappy ending. Myths can be helpful in telling the stories of our lives, but the myth of forever can unnecessarily burden our remembering selves. 

Of course, we don't need to adjust memories of events with happy endings. But we can restructure memories of events with unhappy endings. I am not advocating the denial of real consequences.  Rather, I am recommending a fuller recognition and remembrance of entire experiences.  We can do this with romantic relationships that break up, friendships that end, projects that don’t work out, jobs that terminate unexpectedly, and the normal losses that occur in all our lives.

  • Life is full of middles. Remember and highlight these middle events. Allow yourself to grieve significant losses, but also allow yourself to reflect and appreciate the entire arc of experiences. 
  • Whenever possible, re-punctuate remembered events by specifying different endings.  Choose that engrossing three-hour conversation just before your friend moved away – and not the lengthy, awkward goodbye.   
  • Do not treat real life like a scripted narrative. Life events are not structured in three acts, ending in well-written conclusions. They are often messy and inconclusive – and should not be held to the exacting standards of narrative art. Happily-ever-after happens in movies. Gracefully exiting stage left occurs in the theater. Taking a cinematic or theatrical approach to life only removes us from the actual lived events.
Source: freestockphotos

We spend time consuming our memories, so we should be educated consumers. We do not need to succumb to over-emphasized endings. Although we can’t have tragedy with a happy ending, we can work to prevent endings from shaping our entire remembered experience. Instead of highlighting unhappy endings, we can highlight and remember our happy middles.  Indeed, most of what happens in life occurs in the middle. The end of the story is not the story.