You Might be Wrong About What Makes You Happy

If you think you have an absolute conviction of what makes you happy, you probably are wrong.

One of the fascinating psychological studies that were conducted to understand the truth about happiness is by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman. According to his studies, people are wrong about how happy they are.

In his TED Talk, he explains the riddle behind how we perceive happiness and make life decisions based on that. After listening to his talk, I was intrigued by the imperceptibility of the lousiness we have in judging and guessing what makes us happy.

In my understanding, this misguidance is a sinister affair since your life is formed by the perpetual decisions of happiness you take from time to time.

Happiness plays a crucial role in our lives. We often imitate or continue to do what you love and makes you happy. The feedback you receive from one experience decides whether you will choose that experience later or relinquish that fully. But what if the feedback wasn’t the real truth or the happiness you felt was relative.

The Two Selves

It turns out that, there exist two types of self in us that decide and make judgements of our experiences.

  • The experiencing self
  • The remembering self

To understand how each self participates in judgements we make, let me give you an exercise.

Think about a recent life situation you have gone through. Avoid thinking about anything that happened for a day or two. It should be something significant. It can be a happy or bad memory – You can choose a time when you lived through a tough time or a happy excursion you did with your friends or family or switching to a new job or whatever that comes to your mind.

When you think about that particular event, can you recollect each moment? Can you remember exactly, how you felt in every single moment?

When an experience is over, it’s over. Period. That moment has passed and what you’re left with are tiny bits of memories.

You can’t re-experience those moments in your past once again. You can only remember it. You do remember how you felt in total after that event but not exactly.

Here’s the problem. This final remembrance may not be the accurate judgement of your experience.

Why?

Let’s look at the role of experiencing self and remembering self in arriving at a judgment about your experience.

  • Experiencing self is the quality of life that we experience when an event happens from moment to moment. What you feel while reading this article is experienced is through your experiencing self.
  • Remembering self is a memory of the past and what you think about it now. For example, what you remember about reading this article on some other day.

An event is experienced more through your experiencing self rather than through your remembering self. The time invested by experiencing self is colossal to the time you spend remembering it.

The Authority of Remembering Self

The problem is your experiencing self is loosely correlated with how happy you feel while remembering it. When you make decisions based on your experiences your experiencing self doesn’t get a vote.

Why?

Experiencing self won’t last in memory and are forgotten. Like I asked before, do you remember every single detail of emotion you felt while you were going through that life event? Experiencing self is momentary and become obscure in future. All you are left with is a memory – the remembering self.

So you get to design your life based on your remembering self. It will get the vote in remembering the past and deciding your future – your career, your relationships and everything else about you.

The Two Week Vacation

Kahneman gives the example of a two-week vacation. Assume that vacation of two weeks was equally enjoyable in both the weeks. It’s logical to think that a two-week vacation will be twice as good as having a one week vacation. You had the same level of happiness that continued for two weeks, right?

But people who remembered their two-week vacation voted that one week vacation was better than the two-week vacation.

Why?

Because, when the first week was over even though it was enjoyable there was nothing new in the second week. The second week followed the sameness of happiness from the first week. So all similar moments of happiness were forgotten.

Here you could see how people made a judgement that one week vacation was better although both weeks were equally enjoyable.

So, for their next vacation plans would they choose a one-week or two-week vacation?

Here is another deeper problem, would you pick the same vacation if you knew that all your memories will be destroyed, all the pictures you took will be ruined and you will be given an amnesiac drug when the vacation is over. That is you will get the experience of the vacation but you won’t remember anything when it’s over. Do you choose such a trip?

What does matter in the pursuit of happiness – a moment to moment experience or a narrative afterwards?

The Truth About Memory

As a believer of respecting the reality, I question the authority of memory over the narrative of our life. Memories could be biased. It can be manipulated.

Memory is what’s retained through the remembering self.

Kahneman points out, memory is accentuated by three types of events.

  • How things start
  • Any changes that occur
  • The ending

Our judgements and happiness of the events in our lives are biased by how things began, change or end. Every other sameness or anything that happen in the middle is eliminated from our memories.

For example, sometimes we like a movie for having a great ending despite how average it was till then. Or we like some other movies for having some dramatic scenes in the middle even though the ending was bad.

Emphasize Experiential Happiness

Reality is a fact and a memory cannot always portray it absolutely and truly. Reality matters and it should be. Experiencing self matters.

At least for me, I don’t want to do something just to talk about it later. Unless you don’t value the now, what’s the point of then. It’s up to you whether to emphasize the experiential happiness in your life.

The idea behind emphasizing your experiential happiness is to make our decision less biased and make the experience as better as the narrative we remember later.

There is no easy solution to escape the tyranny of remembering self. But practising few mental habits would indeed foster your experiential happiness.

1. Observe the Now

This is centuries-old advice from the meditation books. Taking time to ask yourself how you feel at the current moment would help you to recall how you felt the whole time, instead of just the end.

Eckhart Tolle has written several books demonstrating how to live a healthier and happier life by living in the present moment.

In a digital age, being absorbed by the many virtual realities around us we fail to pay attention to the present moment that actually constitutes our lives.

2. Build Rewarding Routines

The middle moments of experiences are washed away from our memories. Therefore it makes sense to emphasize them for better experiential happiness.

When I was staying in Banglore for the Navy selection camp last year, we had to wake up at 5 AM and get ready before 6 am. All the tests would finish before 12 PM and we were free to go anywhere or to do anything afterwards. That routine of waking early and finishing tasks at the very earliest gave us enough free time to spend the evening with candidates from other parts of the country.

When I look back, what I remember the most are those evenings when we used to hang out. But that wouldn’t have happened if we had tests throughout the day. It was the routine and discipline we followed in the day time that made our evenings and nights more memorable.

Routines that contribute to well-being has more importance than the short and brief experiences of happiness.

3. Focus on the Journey and Create a Way of Life

Your product is important but if you don’t have a good processing mechanism, the product is likely to fail. Most people believe they will be happy when they reach their goals. But many times the happiness could have been found along the journey.

Pick challenges and a way of life that contribute to your well-being along the journey. My way of life is composed of a few challenges and routines that I enjoy and contribute to my happiness. I enjoy reading and writing so that I decided to take the challenge of running a blog and writing articles.

Create a way of life where prominence is given to the reality of experiencing. When you give more significance to your experiencing self, the decisions you make will be far better than those from biased memories.

What is your take on this idea? Do you overlook the experiences of the present moment and rather overvalue the brief moments of memories? I’m curious to know.

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