Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happinesses?

In this TED talk, psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains that we have two selves – the “experiencing” and the “remembering” self – who experience life in totally different ways.

The experiencing self is the self in the present, feeling sad or happy, feeling pain or pleasure, sobbing or smiling.  The remembering self is the self reflecting on the past, evaluating a past experience or how life is going in general.

As it turns out, our reflections on the past don’t line up with how we actually experienced it.  In a study of patients undergoing an uncomfortable medical procedure, those in group A experienced a high amount of pain for a short time, while those in group B experienced pain for double the time, beginning high and ending low.  When asked later how painful the experience was, however, patients in group A said it was much worse than patients in group B.

Similarly, people going on a two-week vacation have twice as much fun as people on a one-week vacation – their experiencing selves, that is.  But ask them later how the vacation went, and their remembering selves barely favor the longer vacation.  What matters to the remembering self are significant moments, changes, and endings – and that second week in Aruba was pretty much the same as the first.

According to Kahneman, this yields two notions of happiness: the happiness of our experiencing self and the satisfaction of our remembering self.  Experiencing selves tend to enjoy things like spending time with friends and family, while remembering selves care more about income and long-terms goals.

So simple, but so radical.  To me, this lines up neatly with short-term vs. long-term happiness.  I (my experiencing self) might enjoy relaxing by the pool this weekend, but perhaps some freelance work would make me (my remembering self) better off.  So we should always remember which self we’re trying to satisfy with any given activity, and be sure that we don’t neglect either one.  This also applies when comparing two short-term pleasures.  Though our experiencing self might prefer an hour-long massage, we should consider that a shorter one will seem almost as good after the fact.

So how long are you taking off for vacation?

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