More on the complexity of happiness: New TED lecture by Daniel Kahneman

March 22, 2010 | By | 4 Replies More

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel laureate who has spent his long life making dozens of startling discoveries regarding judgment and decision-making. More recently, he has done considerable work in hedonic psychology.  He recently appeared at TED to discuss the “The riddle of experience vs. memory.”

Image by Nruboc at (with permission)

Image by Nruboc at (with permission)

There is no person better qualified than Kahneman to describe how the human psyche is rife with “cognitive traps.”  In this TED talk Kahneman explains that these traps “make it difficult to think about happiness.”  One foundational problem is that humans tend to resist admitting complexity; happiness is a monolithic term for most of us. Kahneman states, however, that “happiness is no longer a useful word, in that it applies to many things. We need to completely give up the simple word “happiness” in order to effectively communicate.  One of the biggest problems is that there is a huge confusion between experience and memory when it comes to determining happiness.  The distinction is with A) happiness IN your life versus B) happiness ABOUT your life (or WITH your life). The problem with trying to determine one’s own happiness is exacerbated by the “focusing illusion.”  The effect of this illusion is that “we can’t think about any circumstance that affects well-being without distorting its importance.”  Kahneman gave an example of a friend who claimed that a scratching sound at the very end of a music recording ruins the entire experience. This is utter nonsense, since the scratching sound occurred only at the end of the recording. It didn’t ruin the entire experience. Rather, it ruined “the memory of the experience.” Human beings consist of two selves: the experiencing self (who lives in the moment) and the remembering self (who keeps score and maintains the story of our lives, selecting and maintaining our memories.  For the remembering self, a critical part of any story is how it ends. If it ends badly, the memory of the entire experience is contaminated (In this video, Kahneman describes earlier studies regarding colonoscopies which dramatically illustrated this point). Time is a funny thing for human beings. For our experiencing self, a two-week vacation is twice as good as a one-week vacation. For the remembering self, a two-week vacation might not be any better than a one-week vacation–“time has very little impact on the story” for the remembering self. Here’s why this distinction is important: it is the remembering self that makes our decisions, and it makes these decisions based upon its stories. The experiencing self has absolutely no voice in decision-making. Further, the experiencing self doesn’t think of the future as a string of experiences, but only as “an anticipated memory.”  Kahneman describes this as “the tyranny of the remembering self.” It’s important to recognize these two selves because they equate to two types of happiness. The experiencing self resonates to real-time happiness, which is easy to measure since it is often a conscious emotional experience. Examples of experiencing self happiness are spending money, achieving goals and spending time with people we like. The “reflective self” equates happiness to well-being, which is a remembered form of happiness.  The degree to which the “reflective self” is happy is based upon the degree to which a person thinks about his or her life as happy. Kahneman points out that there’s only a .5 correlation between these two. It turns out that a person who is extremely satisfied with his or her life might not be living a life filled with happy experiences. It is quite difficult to think accurately about well-being. Recent studies have consistently shown that money means almost nothing for increased happiness for the experiencing self, as long as a person is making about $60,000 (people making less than $60,000 tend to be less happy, with more unhappiness correlating to less money). For the remembering self, making more money is correlated with a higher degree of remembered happiness. Kahneman’s point regarding the paucity of experiences that actually get remembered reminded me of a 1999 lecture by neurobiologist David Van Essen, which I attended at Washington University.  Van Essen explained that the world is way beyond our capacity to absorb without massive over-simplification, and humans are experts at simplifying the world. He presented an inverted pyramid to illustrate the dramatic loss of information from perception to long-term memory: * We start with the World of information, which is unlimited. * 1010 bits/second of information = capacity of retina * 107 bits/second of information = capacity of optic nerve * 104 bits/second of information = capacity of attention * 10 bits/second of information = capacity of long term memory [“Translating the neural code: neurons as detectives, not detectors,” Intentionality and the Natural Mind Workshop, March 19, 1999.] We thus perceive only a small slice of the available world and we remember only a tiny portion of the world that we successfully perceive.   It seems that this inability to absorb and retain memories about the world can become dangerous because human perception always seems so very full and complete.  We don’t know that we don’t know, which so often leads to false certainty.


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Category: Communication, Current Events, Psychology Cognition, Quality of Life

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Comprehensive moral instruction | Dangerous Intersection | April 11, 2010
  1. Adam says:

    Hi Erich, I thought you might appreciate this article:

    One of the researchers, Simine Vazire, is at the Psychology Department at Washington University. She also blogs (pretty infrequently) at Psychology Today: .

  2. Erich Vieth says:


    Thanks for the link to the deep-talk route to happiness. Here's the central idea:

    "It may sound counterintuitive, but people who spend more of their day having deep discussions and less time engaging in small talk seem to be happier, said Matthias Mehl, a psychologist at the University of Arizona who published a study on the subject."

    I have to wonder, though, whether Mehl's conclusions should viewed in light of Kahneman's suggestion that "happiness" refers to a variety of things. I am certain that some of the people I know are antagonized by deep topics. I wonder whether these people who thrive on chit-chat tend to be Kahneman's experiencing self people, whereas folks who crave the deep conversations (who tend to be remembering self people).

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's a transcript of part of the post talk interview with Daniel Kahneman, where he discusses the magic number of $60,000:

    Chris Anderson: Thank you. I've got a question for you. Thank you so much. Now, when we were on the phone a few weeks ago, you mentioned to me that there was quite an interesting result came out of that Gallup survey. Is that something you can share since you do have a few moments left now?

    Daniel Kahneman: Sure. I think the most interesting result that we found in the Gallup survey is a number, which we absolutely did not expect to find. We found that with respect to the happiness of the experiencing self. When we looked at how feelings vary with income. And it turns out that, below an income of 60,000 dollars a year, for Americans, and that's a very large sample of Americans, like 600,000, but it's a large representative sample, below an income of 600,000 dollars a year…

    CA: 60,000.

    DK: 60,000. (Laughter) 60,000 dollars a year, people are unhappy, and they get progressively unhappier the poorer they get. Above that, we get an absolutely flat line. I mean I've rarely seen lines so flat. Clearly, what is happening is money does not buy you experiential happiness, but lack of money certainly buys you misery, and we can measure that misery very, very clearly. In terms of the other self, the remembering self, you get a different story. The more money you earn the more satisfied you are. That does not hold for emotions…

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