Daniel Kahneman: How Memory + Experience Create and Influence Happiness

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by Alessandro Jacoby

I don’t know about you, but I always believed that happiness was a direct consequence of the choices I made. By that logic, there was no way to access and affect my personal happiness except indirectly through the actions of a lifetime. That is, I always tried to move the elements of the equation and not its result.


My understanding of the function of personal happiness has been changed by viewing the TED talk of Nobel laureate and founder of behavioral economics Daniel Kahneman, who reveals how our "experiencing selves" and our "remembering selves" perceive happiness differently.


My previous belief, in truth, is nothing more than a cognitive trap. Kahneman explains, "We do not choose between experiences. We choose between memories of experiences. Even when we think about the future, we do not think of our future normally, [as in] the experiences. We think the future of our anticipated memories." Provocative statement, right? But what does it really mean?


Conceptually, if we could define the present as a membrane between past and future, each new record that our "remembering self" takes from our "experiencing self" functions to increase the thickness of the membrane. Further, this increases the chance of creating more memorable situations. Thus a link is established between the dynamic of the “self who lives in context” (experiencing self) and the “self that defines the context in which we will live from snapshots of significant” (remembering self).


By way of example, Kahneman uses a study taken of people having colonoscopies in the 90s, when the procedure was significantly less comfortable than it is today. He displays two charts, one of Group A and one of Group B. Each group was asked to indicate their level of pain every 60 seconds throughout the procedure. It is clearly evident from the charts that Group B suffered the most. What’s most interesting, however, is that at the end of the procedure, after some time had passed, each group was asked to describe their memory of the procedure, and Group A (who had obviously experienced less pain) all reported having the worst experience, whereas Group B’s responses were relatively mild.

Being pragmatic, I think we actually - from the logic of "remembering self" - create a simple, practical, and effective way to add small credits to our daily happiness account. That means understanding the future moments of our lives and planning the addition of new stories - creating turning points or moments of change - within a single experience. The "remembering self” needs these small perceptual triggers to reframe our notion of happiness and to keep the membrane of the present always thick enough to really live the happiness in both our "selves."




About Alessandro

Alessandro is Creative Director, Partner of Selling Outlier Thinking, and Teacher of Creative Process at ESPM - a traditional Brazilian Creative School. He was also the creator of the blog Nickframe (http://nickframe.blogspot.com – in Portuguese  His current project is 5Brand (http://www.5brand.net/blog), where a simple question makes a big mess in our minds: Could you define yourself with only 5 brands? Alessandro is an active member of the Delivering Happiness VHP program.

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