I really like this TED talk from Daniel Kahneman who researches how we perceive happiness. He reveals that we’ve been researching this topic the wrong way by failing to distinguish between our “experiencing self” and the “remembering self”.
Our experiencing self really only focuses on the “now” moments, which according to Kahneman, only last about 3 seconds. So the question “how happy are you?” requires people to tap into their experiencing self and judge their happiness in that particular moment.
Whereas asking the question “how happy are you when you think about your life” calls on the remembering self to reflect on past experiences and rate the emotion.
This year Kahneman, a Nobel laureate, released a book on the topic called Thinking, Fast and Slow, which appeared on quite a few Best Books of 2011 lists.
In his talk Kahneman tells a story of someone who had listened to 20mins of beautiful music, at the end of which was a terrible screeching sound. The person recalled that the screeching sound ruined the whole experience, when in fact all it had ruined was the memory of that experience. The happiness that the person felt while listening (experiencing) the beautiful music still remained the same.
Another way of talking about the remembering self is to ask “how good is the story of this experience going to be when I tell it later on?”. In the same way that we simplify past and future events, I think we can influence our brains to focus on the positive experiences we have already had, and the good things that will come from events in the future.
In doing so, we’ll be able to improve the happiness of our remembering self and feel better about our past decisions, giving us better perception on our future decisions and making for a more satisfied life overall.
Have a watch of Kahneman’s fascinating presentation here.