Happiness, now and later

Daniel Kahneman gave a fascinating talk about two kinds of happiness: the happiness you experience in the moment, and the happiness you feel when remembering an event later.

This idea got inside my head and wouldn’t go away. Basically, studies have shown that people will report very different levels of pain or pleasure while they are having an experience, compared to what they report looking back on it later. I take this to mean that not only is happiness subjective (per person), but it is also a function of time. Or, another way to see it is to realize that the person you are changes over time. We may know this already, but it is inconvenient and disorienting and at odds with the illusion of a constant self, so we tend to forget it and move on with our lives.

Kahneman captured the difference in this thought experiment:

Imagine that for your next vacation, you know that at the end of the vacation all your pictures will be destroyed, and you’ll get an amnesic drug so that you won’t remember anything. Now, would you choose the same vacation?

Another observation he shared is that one’s later reflection on an experience is most influenced by how it ended. A positive or pleasant ending colors the entire experience, and the same is true if the end is painful or unpleasant. Remembered happiness is clearly *not* the integral of momentary happiness.

But if this is true, what does it mean for people who seek happiness? Which kind of happiness is the one you want to optimize? If you optimize happiness in the moment, arguably you are happier for more of the total time. But you might not *feel* that way, looking back later. If there were unpleasant bits near the end of an experience, they could dwarf all of the intermediate pleasure. But if you optimize retrospective happiness, this could come at the cost of a lot of momentary pain and unhappiness (which you later forget). Which self do you care more about? Since the remembering self is the one who lives on (the momentary self is arguably dead after the moment passes), maybe that self should win. What’s a person to do?

Kahneman did not answer this question. He also didn’t address the fact that the remembering self, each time it remembers, updates and reinforces and alters the memories slightly, so ultimately happiness is a fluid quantity that won’t sit still even if you were to stop having new experiences.

It’s possible that Kahneman has gotten me to way over-think this question. And yet I can’t quite let it go. The pursuit of happiness and a good life is the fundamental question of philosophy and living. With this idea, Kahneman has also pointed out that it is also inextricably tied to identity. Which self is *me*? Both. But I can only live one life. Hmmm!

1 of 1 people learned something from this entry.

  1. Jo Kuwajima said,

    January 13, 2019 at 8:11 pm

    Does this complicate the advice to “put down the camera and be fully present in the moment”?

  2. Jim in PA said,

    January 16, 2019 at 5:13 am

    (Learned something new!)

    Kahneman is a pioneer in the study of cognitive bias and behavioral economics, and his talk reflects that. In his view, the happiness question mirrors investment strategy – one must weigh the future value of happiness as one does the future value of money. Spend now or save for later? Balance risk vs. reward. Based on your current “savings” of good memories, what is the marginal value of additional good memories? Maybe he would suggest you should start spending when you hit 62.

    Happiness is a means not an ends. The research I have read suggests that people have a happiness set point (the Hedonic treadmill) that they return to regardless of positive or negative near-term events. Moving the set point is about learning to reframe experiences. For example, the stoics teach that “the obstacle is the way” – that the things that challenge us provide opportunities to express classical virtues. This forms a measure of happiness that puts happiness within the control of the individual and that is divorced from particular outcomes or circumstances. As an individual, you are only responsible for your own reasoned choice and if you make choices you see as virtuous then you will be happy. Gratitude is related to happiness in the same way that electricity is related to magnetism – the existence of either induces the other. A gratitude habit can move the set point upward.

    What should I do with my life? I’ve come to believe that a better answer than “do what makes you happy” would be to say “do things where you can learn to embrace the grind.” These are things where the personal joy that comes from the work of incremental progress outweighs the cost of that progress. Look for activities that fit this pattern and that build toward opportunities for well-understood drivers of happiness such as autonomy, mastery, purpose, community, and gratitude. I’ve come to find this measure as a form of compass – if moving closer to the goal isn’t making me happy, what makes me think I will be happy when I get there? In this way, you are living in accord with your own values, personal growth becomes a form of compound interest (Kahneman would approve!), and you can have happiness both now and later.

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