Danny Kahneman on how we’re so wrong about happiness

Picture yourself during date night with your boo. The kids are with the in-laws (so no babysitter pressure), you went cray and opted for that second bottle of wine and now you’re at the opera enjoying one of your favorite performers. You bob and nod your head immersed in this glorious music, savoring each and every moment – it’s been a while since you can remember such an enjoyable evening. And as the opera comes to an end, the person sitting next to you rips the loudest, most atrociously smelling fart you’ve ever experienced.

Happiness is how we judge experiences

Nobel-prize winning economist Danny Kahneman uses this example (well, he picked “dreadful screeching sound” over flatulence) to show how wrong we can be about happiness. The psychological heuristic known as the peak-end rule makes us “judge an experience largely based on how (we) felt at its peak (i.e., its most intense point) and at its end, rather than based on the total sum or average of every moment of the experience.” So as you’re riding home in the Uber, your recollection of the magical evening is tarnished by the fart.

So what is happiness? Kahneman believes that the answer lies in the tension between “what I experience” versus “what I remember.” And this conundrum shows up in many of our existential re-framings: should we live in the moment or delay gratification, focus on the process vs. the outcome, or the journey vs. the destination?

Does a vacation make you “happy?”

In his 2010 Ted Talk The Riddle of Experience and Memory Kahneman lays out a legit thought experiment about one the biggest “drivers” (my word, not his) of happiness: vacations. He invites us to imagine our next vacation knowing 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?

Putting aside the depressing limitation that you couldn’t even do it for the ‘Gram, it’s a tricky question (with no right answer). Psychologists measure a moment of our lives as three seconds – a month consists of 600,000 moments and on average we’ll experience 600 million moments in our lifetimes.

Three seconds of bliss

So if we return to that vacation, do we want to feel great during 300,000 tiny bursts of life? Or ball the f**k out at a five star dinner that you’ll “remember” for years to come? Here’s where the remembering self can begin to lead us astray. It’s hard to recall tiny three second increments so our mind builds narratives around “future anticipated memories,” or what Kahneman calls the “tyranny of the remembering self.” Thus the remembered self becomes the tail wagging the dog in which the “dragging the experiencing self through experiences that the experiencing self doesn’t need.”

We care a lot about life satisfaction

The remembering self really cares about “life satisfaction” – which is largely driven by social yardsticks and “comparisons with other people” (and of course, the ‘Gram). My Quartz colleague Ephrat Livni succinctly described this dichotomy: “Satisfaction is retrospective. Happiness occurs in real time.”

Kahneman argues that this is particularly acute with money:

“Life satisfaction rises in direct proportion to how much [money] you have. In contrast, happiness is affected by money only when it’s lacking. Poverty can buy a lot of suffering, but above the level of income that satisfies basic needs, happiness, as I define it, doesn’t increase with wealth. The graph is surprisingly flat.”

This focus on comparison leads us away from the experienced self. Think about it, no one will care about the most bliss-filled three seconds of your life. Kahneman told Tyler Cowen that this realization pushed him out of the field of happiness. He was frustrated that people acted irrationally and got in their own way when it came to happiness. One example: despite convincing evidence that spending time with friends made people happy, they didn’t prioritize the behavior.

Should you pick memories or experiences?

This tension shows up in so many elements of our daily life. Would you take a job with an incredible team and mission (experienced self) with little prestige (remembered self)? Would you read an incredible book if you couldn’t humblebrag about it? Should you upgrade to premium economy or spend the money once you get there?

I got a taste of this tension with our recent move to California and my experience with surfing. In constructing my future anticipated memories I had this vision of me tan and shredding, ripping across the line like Kelly Slater.

It turns out that for a mere mortal like me surfing is definitely not about the remembered self. On the contrary, it’s the experienced self on overdrive. Because the sport is so dependent on mother nature, surfing has turned out to be a different activity than I imagined it to be: lots of sitting around by myself (often time in the dark) waiting to catch an occasional wave. It’s often cold and lonely, but with time I’ve come to discover the beauty in that stillness. But it’s rich with three second bursts of mother nature’s calming presence. Don’t get me wrong, the (rare) Kelly Slater days are fun as hell – but what brings me back each day is that simple serenity.

Each moment is a blessing

On the Reboot podcast, CEO whisperer Jerry Colonna and I riffed on the seeing the beauty in “everyday-ness” and I chuckled at his definition of enlightenment:

Before Enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After Enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.

We’ve hopefully all been blessed with hundreds of millions of (three second) life moments. We can choose to see the beauty in so many of them. And what an experience that can be.

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