Memories And Happiness

Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel laureate and founder of behavioral economics. His research indicates that our “experiencing selves” perceive happiness differently from our “remembering selves”. He tells the story (4.14) of a friend that was listening to a concert that ended with a screeching noise. The friend mentioned, with a lot of passion, that the screeching noise in the end ruined the whole performance. Kahneman  says that, in fact, this is not correct. He says that his friend had experienced an enormous amount of enjoyment during the entire performance and that it is only his memory of the event that is negative and it is negative that is the result of his memory focusing on the screeching noise. Kahneman interprets this by proposing that there are two aspects of ourselves. One of them lives in the present and is the “experiencing self”. The other is the “memory self” and this is a version of ourselves that is based on memory. It keeps score and organizes our history. He says that the memory self is a storyteller encourages us to understand that our memory tells us a story and of that what we get to keep from our experiences is a story. 

Kahneman provided another example of his theory that involved two people that received a colonoscopy in the 1990s – back when it was painful. One of them had a 10 minute colonoscopy and the other one had a 25 colonoscopy and they involved the same amount of pain per minute, therefore, it would appear that the second patient experienced more suffering. After asking the patients how much they think they suffered it turns out that the result was the other way around. The first patient may have had a shorter experience in terms of time but their memory of it was such that it felt like an extremely bad experience. The reason for this is that the pain for the first patient a was peaking at the end and this is what influenced that patients memory. This was not the case for the second patient. Kahneman  says that we could improve patient A’s memory of the experience by extending the time but with less pain and therefore giving patient A a better story to tell. Endings are very important.

Kahneman also provides an example for the experiencing self. If you have a two week vacation where the first week is good and the second week is good then the two week vacation is twice as good as one week vacation. However this is not the case for the memory self. For the memory self the two week vacation is only marginally better than the one week vacation because there are very few additional memories added. The story has not changed. Time is the variable that distinguishes between a memory self and experiencing self. Kahneman  says that the memory self is the one that makes decisions. We don’t choose between experiences, we choose between memories of experiences. 

Kahneman says that when we think about our future we don’t think about future experiences, we think about future memories. We don’t just go on vacation for the experience during that one week, we mostly on vacation in order to acquire the memory of the vacation so that we can dwell on it later. Kahneman  says that we can test the weight that we put on memory compared to experience with this question. Think about the idea of going on a vacation where, at the end of the vacation, you will have amnesia and have no memory of the vacation and all of your pictures of the vacation will be destroyed. Would you choose that vacation? 

There is an important, albeit obvious, conclusion to draw from Kahneman’s research. Go ahead and make the memories. Preferably good ones. As many of them as possible. Take it a step further and help your memory by taking pictures and making the occasional journal entry. Kahneman’s research has an obvious impact on how happiness works. It tells us that the happiness that we feel is not just dependent on our experience in the present but also heavily influenced by how we interpret the past. Remembering the great things you have experienced helps you feel better about time passing (and aging). Aging is not a problem if you are happy with what you have to show for your time on the planet. 

If you feel that you don’t have much to show for time you have spent in the world you will be feeling very nervous about the passing of time and will feel very uncomfortable about aging. You will feel uncomfortable if you think that you have reached a point in time in life where certain dreams that you had for yourself will not happen. However, the old dreams can easily be replaced with new dreams. If your memories do not live up to your expectations the first thing you can do is to get your mind away from those memories (the past), remind yourself that you are living in the present and use the present to plan the top 100 future good (why not great) memories that you can imagine. 

Next article in this series: “Meditation”

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