On thinking carelessly about happiness

December 26, 2011 | By | Reply More

I recently watched Daniel Kahneman’s TED lecture a second time (here’s my first comment), because it relates to some of the material in Kahneman’s excellent new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Kahneman dissects the term “happiness,” explaining that it is so fraught with ambiguities that we should probably dispense with this word. Complicating things, we confuse experience (being happy in your life) and memory (being happy about or with your life). Making things even worse, we suffer from the “focusing illusion.” Namely, we can’t think about any circumstance that affects well being without distorting its importance. Kahneman describes the “focusing illusion” as a “real cognitive trap” that we have no hope of getting right.

The remembering self depends on stories that we construct, and what is especially salient about our stories are the changes, significant moments and endings. Whereas the “experiencing self” lives a life of a series of moments, most of these moments are lost forever–they are not remembered. Each “psychological present moment” is about 3 seconds long, meaning that there are 600 million of them in a lifetime (600,000 in each month). Most of them don’t leave a trace in our memory. We forget almost all of them no matter how much we try to remember them and no matter how much we think that they should all “count.” Because the “remembering self” has no access to most of the moments of our lives, it substantially relies on the stories we construct about our lives.

It turns out that these are two extremely different selves that bear differently on how “happy” we are.


Category: Psychology Cognition

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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