From Michael Kruse… Michael here reflects on a TED lecture on happiness, and you might be interested in a piece I wrote on happiness a couple years back. But Michael has found a fascinating study on what it is that makes us happy.
How can we
best measure well-being? Are you an experience kind of happiness person? Or a story kind of happiness person? Which makes you happiesr?
How can we
best measure well-being? An
economist will likely give you an analysis of gross domestic product (the
market value of all final goods and services produced within a year.) GDP is
frequently used as a proxy for well-being because strongly correlates with
material standard of living. Fair enough. But as many people rightly point out,
we aren’t simply material beings. More wealth doesn’t necessarily make you
better off. We need other measures. Some say we should measure happiness.
blush this seems reasonable. Yet as behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman (2002 Nobel
Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences) points out in a recent TED seminar,
measuring happiness is more elusive than it first appears. In his video, The
riddle of experience vs. memory, he identifies at least two ways happiness
We have two
selves who don’t evaluate happiness in the same way:
1. Experiencing-Self – Lives completely in the moment … lives in a rolling three second window we experience as the present. Happiness is about happy moments. Happiness is about being happy in your life.
2. Remembering-Self – Keeps score and maintains the story of our lives. The remembering self is a storyteller. It abstracts from our experiences focusing on changes, significant moments, and endings, and then weaves them into a narrative. Happiness is about satisfaction with our story. Happiness is about being happy about your life.
Kahneman tells of a man who listened to a beautiful symphony. At the end there was a loud screeching sound. His friend remarked, “It ruined the whole symphony.” Well, not really. He had experienced twenty minutes of happy experiences followed by only one screeching moment. What was ruined was his memory of the experience.
Kahneman also tells about two patients who underwent the same medical procedure. Patient A had a shorter procedure that entailed significant pain. Patient B’s procedure took longer and featured more moments of pain that were as painful as patient A’s pain. But the moments of pain were less intense as the course of the procedure unfolded. Patient B, despite having had a lengthier series of painful moments, will usually report that he suffered less. How the story ends influences how we remember events and therefore it influences our happiness with our memory of the event.
As a thought experiment, Kahneman suggests we imagine we are planning a two week vacation. At the end of that vacation we know that all photographs and reminders of the vacation will be destroyed. A drug will be given that erases our memory. Would we still choose the same vacation? Most of us would not. Scientific research shows there is very little correlation between the happiness experienced by the two selves.
We often deny ourselves pleasurable experiences (or endure difficult experiences) in the present in an effort to shape ourselves in ways that brings happiness to the remembering-self. Conversely, our experiencing-self may find great happiness in the moment but our remembering-self may evaluate the event as foolish regarding the remembering-self’s narrative.
Kahneman’s basic point is that, as we make choices, “We don’t choose between experiences. We choose between memories of experiences. … We don’t think about our future as events but rather as anticipated memories.”
What does this mean for how wealth impacts our lives? Kahneman says that happiness for the experiencing-self increases with income up to about $60,000 (for Americans.) Beyond that, there is no correlation. “Money does not by you experiential happiness but lack of money certainly buys you misery.” However, there is a continuous correlation between happiness and income for the remembering-self. Income relates to how happy we feel about our lives. However, the most important factor in happiness appears to be spending time with people your like.
If we reflect carefully, we see that answers to the generic question, “Are you happy?” may not be useful in determining well-being. It is possible people to adapt and be happy in the midst of injustice when in fact they should be unhappy and seeking change. Unhappiness is often a prime motivator for innovation and change. But it is also possible that some people are unhappy because despite having material abundance their personal narrative is warped and unfulfilled.
What I find particularly intriguing is Kahneman’s idea of the remembering-self and narrative. His unstated implication is that if you change the story the remembering-self develops, then you change what makes the remembering-self happy. And if you change what makes the remembering-self happy, then you change the economic decisions the remembering-self is so influential in guiding.
What implications might Kahneman’s work have for us as we reflect on Christian formation, economic decision making, and witnessing to the Kingdom of God?