Remembering Happiness

Behavioral Economist Daniel Kahneman had a fascinating talk about the contrasts between the experience of happiness and the memory of happiness.  I'm going to quickly recap and discuss some of his points.

1. Definition  

Elation, satisfaction, and well being are all different phenomena and these differences are compounded by the fact that we remember differently than we experience.

My Thoughts:  The subject of mood was not discussed, but tracing its origins to either the experiencing or remembering self (or both) is, I think, of utmost importance.  My intuition is that even though we spend very little time remembering/reminiscing, it has a strong baring on our underlying mood day-to-day.  This is why someone can be happier for weeks after they get back from a vacation, even though they may be preoccupied with thoughts of what lies ahead.  
I think mood can be affected by both experience and memory, you can certainly feel like trash after a night of drinking (beyond just the hangover), even if you've blacked out.  However, one function of memory is centering and achieving consistency within the mood.  The periodic reflecting on good or bad events allows us to reset the tempo of our day.  This is why we need time to rest and time to think: we are becoming ourselves again, we are becoming the story we tell ourselves.

2. Experience vs Remembrance

An interesting thought experiment: If I told you you could take a trip anywhere, were would you go?   If I told you you could take a trip anywhere, but you would be given an amnesiac and loose all memory of the trip, where would you go?  The difference between the experiencing self and the remembering self is demonstrated by the fact that you would probably give different answers to the two questions.

An additional detail is that endings are just one part of an experience, but can make up the entirety of the memory.  When someone says an ending "ruined the whole thing," they are technically incorrect:  the joy they felt has not gone anywhere.  What is gone is the ability to recapture that joy through memory.

My Thoughts: The self is not the same as the person in question.  The self is a phenomenon entirely dependent on memory.  I can experience any kind of joy or sorry, but is through the faculty of memory that it comes to be associated with myself.  I am an organism with the faculties of experiencing happiness, but these faculties matter little in how effective they are.  What matters is my capacity to remember, and to make good memories, and to keep good memories, that is what makes me a happy person.

The most important thing to remember is that you are always capable of happiness, it is your memory which blocks or deters you from experiencing happiness in all the ways you could.  The phrase "once bitten, twice shy" definitely applies here.  If you can love as if you have never been hurt, try as if you've never failed, and live as if you've never known death, you will be a happy person.  But there is a great deal of attachment to memory, which is the attachment to self, which blocks you.

3. The Remembering Self is the Decision Maker 

When we look toward options, we are not evaluating experiences, but rather, our future is the anticipated memory of experience.  Kaneman talks about the tyranny of the remembering self, how we choose what to do based on what we will remember, and our experiencing self just gets dragged along for the ride.  He uses the example of money quite effectively for this.

Money can buy you happiness.  At $60,000 per year, no additional amount of money can buy you any happiness.  Kaneman put it as saying money can't buy you happiness, but a lack of money buys you misery.  People above this point don't experience any more happiness due to income, they basically can afford any significant necessity and luxury in existence.  However, personal satisfaction can still increase beyond this point, because people remember how far they've worked themselves up.  Someone who has a six figure salary can feel accomplishment when they look back on what they used to earn.

The takeaway from this is not "earn more money," there are far easier ways to achieve happiness.  The takeaway is that "all the money in the world" is actually $60,000.  There is no happiness to be found beyond that point, just a lot of social complexity.

My Thoughts:  When we look into the future, we are asking how we will feel when we look back, instead of what we will see when we look forward.  This is why we are so averse to experiencing tragedies even when they can be the most pivotal, self-defining moments which give us our character.  This is one area where we can train our memory.

This isn't empty optimism: memory occludes half of the reality of any future event by failing to imagine what comes afterward.  When we concentrate on the person we will become through an experience instead of what will be left after an experience, we our retraining our memory to a more positive bias, positive in the sense of allowing positive experiences.  

As an artifact of evolution, our minds are in the business of denying us positive experience: either because of a bad ending, or because they don't mesh well with the established story of ourselves.  In an environment where a bad ending is death and an unusual experience could ostracize you from your tribe, this makes sense.  However, this is a mechanism for not dying, not a mechanism for living and enjoying life.

This is why focusing on how we remember the good times, how we remember the bad times, and caring more about who we will be than what we will be remembering is the secret to happiness.  It's also why I'm glad I found this TED talk!

Honir Honir
26-30, M
May 30, 2010