There is a difference between being happy in your life and being happy with your life. In his TED Talk Daniel Kahneman, Nobel prize winner and behavioral economics founder, explains the bizarre- but logical- reason why.
When you are experiencing something, you only ever get to keep the memory of that experience. So, you always have two perspectives to consider when making a decision. You can optimize for the present moment (the experiencing self) or you can optimize for the “self” that will look back on the experience and keep score (the remembering self). Depending on which perspective you’re looking from, the decision will often be quite different.
Kahneman explains that these “two selves” are often in conflict because what is good for the now might not be the best choice for the memory. For example, buying an expensive bag may be a great experience but, when it is over, the remembering self will take a look at the memories you have from that moment and assess whether the bag was worth the cost and time to purchase.
If the experience was amazing, it’s very likely you’ll be willing to buy another expensive bag. If it was not, the moment will be remembered as unsatisfactory- and you will likely not find the bag as valuable as you thought it was when you bought it. Based on the bad memory of the experience, it is very likely that you will not purchase another bag like that.
The remembering self is very powerful because it makes the decisions for the experiencing self. Kahneman describes how,
“we actually don’t choose between experiences, we choose between memories of experiences.”
During his TED Talk, Kahneman sites an example to illustrate this point. You are a patient at a doctors office and must choose between two doctors. One doctor can get the procedure done faster but more painfully, and the other doctor will take longer but the overall pain level will be reduced.
Which doctor do you choose?
The above image is a slide from Kahneman’s TED Talk. The two graphs on the left are real data from 2 different patients. Patient A had a shorter procedure that was extremely painful until the end. Patient B had a longer procedure that was distressing at points but ended with low pain intensity. Which patient do you think had a worse experience?
As noted by Kahneman’s caption, “clearly, patient B suffered more-” but he reveals a surprise with the results of a survey taken post-procedure. The researchers asked each patient how much pain they think they endured with the procedure- essentially, they were asking the patients “how did it go?” Shockingly, patient B described the procedure more fondly than patient A.
Why? Well, Kahneman theorizes, the memories of the experiences were very different. Each patient had a story about how they remember the procedure. Arguably, the most important part of any story is how it ends. Patient A’s procedure ended on a very painful note, where as patient B’s procedure ended on a much less painful level. Thus, patient B has a better memory of the procedure than patient A. So, if given the choice, the doctor who performed patient B’s procedure would be chosen over patient A’s physician.
Is there a conflict between your “two selves”?
You may think you are immune to the two selves concept. Maybe, you argue, you always make decisions that optimize for the present experience rather than for the future memory of the present experience. Let’s find out.
Suppose you are set to take a week long vacation. You can go anywhere and do anything. Where would you go, with whom, and what would you do?
Now suppose the same conditions apply (vacation, go anywhere, do anything) but you are told that at the end of the vacation all of your memories from the vacation will be deleted and all evidence (photos etc.) will be destroyed.
Would you choose to the same vacation in both scenarios?
The answer reveals your affinity toward your two selves. If you would choose a different vacation based on your knowledge of the loss of all memory of the vacation- you likely optimize for the remembering self. If you would choose the same vacation regardless of whether you get to “keep” the memory of the vacation, you likely optimize for the experiencing self.
How happy are your two selves?
Kahneman postulates that there is a difference between the happiness of the experiencing self and the remembering self.
He explains that not differentiating between these two conditions has been the downfall of many behavioral studies. The happiness of the experiencing self is dependent on how much that person enjoys the moments of their life. Conversely, the happiness of the remembering self is a measure of how good someone feels about their life when they look back on the memories they have created.
The elements of these two selves affect everyone to a degree and there is no perfect science for making decisions on the behalf of one self over another. The best case scenario is that you’re aware of the two selves and use that knowledge to weigh decisions based on your current or potential happiness.