Happiness: Experience vs. Memory


The word 'happiness' seems like such a simple word. It's like you know it too well to think about it consciously. But what's happiness?

Are you happy in your life? Are you happy with your life?

Although you might not pay much attention to it, according to Daniel Kahneman, those are two very different concepts lumped in the notion of happiness.

the Happiness of the Experiencing Self & the Happiness of the Remembering Self

Imagine you're watching a very funny movie on your laptop and, just before the movie ends, your laptop crashes and ruins it! You might even say that it ruined the whole "experience," but did it? I mean you've already had a lot of fun watching what you have, haven't you? What it's ruined is the memory of the experience.

That's the difference. All you're left with is the memory of the movie and that's ruined, but you have already had lots of fun watching the movie before it happened, right? You've had the experience (for the most part), but you haven't got to keep the memory, which is very important to us.

This is because one's self is in fact two selves: An experiencing self who lives in the present, knows the present and answers when the doctor asks "Does it hurt now when I touch you here?" And there's a remembering self that keeps scores and maintains the story of our life, and answers when the doctor asks "How have you been feeling lately?"

The remembering self is a storyteller. It tells us stories about our experiences, and stories are all we've had to keep from our experiences. But what does define a story? Changes, significant moments, and of course, endings; and endings are the most important parts.

The experiencing self, however, is consciously living the life - One experience after another. But what happens to these experiences? Yup, NOTHING! For the most part, they are lost forever. Most of them don't even leave a trace and that's because the remembering self just doesn't care about most of them! But still, we get the sense that they should count - simply because our time on earth is not infinite.

This is from Daniel Kahneman's TEDtalk back in February 2010:

"So we have the remembering self and the experiencing self, and they're really quite distinct. The biggest difference between them is in the handling of time. From the point of view of the experiencing self, if you have a vacation, and the second week is just as good as the first, then the two-week vacation is twice as good as the one-week vacation. That's not the way it works at all for the remembering self. For the remembering self, a two-week vacation is barely better than the one-week vacation because there are no new memories added. You have not changed the story. And in this way, time is actually the critical variable that distinguishes a remembering self from an experiencing self; time has very little impact on the story."

The whole idea gets more interesting when you pay a little more attention to this question: So which self is in charge of our decision making? And the answer is remembering self. When we’re trying to make a decision based on past experiences, we’re actually making the decision based on the memory of the past experiences; and that’s what the remembering self is in charge of. In fact, we don't choose between experiences in order to repeat the experience; we choose between the memories of experiences. 

But it goes further. In fact, if you think about it, when we think about our future,  we think of it as anticipated memories.  It means that we (the experiencing self) go through experiences in order to create memories for our remembering selves. But the question is how much we’re going to consume these memories?

Think about the best vacation you’ve ever had – the one that causes your happiness-meter to hit the roof when you think about it. Now, how often do you think about it? And how much time you spend thinking about it? A few minutes, once or twice a month maybe? Unless of course you open the folder with the pictures of your beloved vacation, then say half an hour! But how often does that happen?

Now, let’s do a little 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? (Kahneman, 2010)

Interesting, isn’t it?

If you’ve chosen ‘no’, there’s a little conflict between your two selves. However, it’s not that straightforward. If you think about it it terms of happiness in time, you’ll get one answer, but if you think of it as the happiness created by remembering the memories, you might get another one. In fact, the reason we pick the vacations we do is a problem that confronts us with a choice between our two selves.

The two selves create the two notions of happiness. Remember the questions in the beginning of the post?

Are you happy in your life? Are you happy with your life?

“Are you happy in your life?” is about the happiness of our experiencing self – in the moment with the emotions involved.

But, “Are you happy with your life?” or “Are you happy about your life?” is about the satisfaction of our remembering self. It’s not about how happy we’re living our lives, it’s about how satisfied we are with it.

These two are very different, also very important to distinguish when thinking about our happiness. It means if we try to keep our both selves happy, we might end up doing completely different things, because when we think about life and when we actually live it, we’re attending to two different things.

The last fascinating thing is that, after making a decision, when we think about our decision and compare the choice we made to other choices we had, if we “think” we’ve made the right choice, that’ll make our experiencing self happier, even though in reality, it might not!

And this is how complicated a simple concept like happiness can get!


I hope reading this can make you think, and then contribute to the happiness of your experiencing self, and in the future, to the happiness of your remembering self!


This post is based on Daniel Kahneman’s TEDtalk in February 2010. Daniel Kahneman is a world-renowned psychologist and 2002 Nobel Prize winner in Economic Sciences.