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Maximizing Your Happiness – The Coaching Room

This article was based on the TED Talk, “The Riddle of Experience vs. Memory,” by Daniel Kahneman:

The riddle of experience vs. memory | Daniel Kahneman


Understanding Happiness

There is a huge wave of interest in happiness, among researchers. There is a lot of happiness coaching. Everybody would like to make people happier. Despite this flood of work, there are several cognitive traps that make it almost impossible to think straight about happiness.

Daniel Kahneman describes the first of these traps as a reluctance to admit complexity. He says that the word “happiness” is not a useful word anymore because we apply it to too many different things. Because of this we need to adopt a more complicated view of well-being. The second trap Kahneman explains is a confusion between experience and memory. These are two very different concepts, but they are both lumped in the notion of happiness. The third trap is the focusing illusion where we cannot think about any circumstance that affects well-being without distorting its importance.


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These traps cause us to think of ourselves and other people in terms of two selves. There is an experiencing self, who lives in the present and knows the present, but is capable of re-living the past, even though it has only the present. The opposite is the remembering self. These are two very different entities, the experiencing self and the remembering self.  The trouble is that they get confused and distort our understanding of happiness.


The Remembering Self and the Experiencing Self

The remembering self is a storyteller built on memories.  Our memory tells us stories based on our experiences. What defines a story are changes, significant moments and endings. Endings are very important and in some cases, they are the dominant memory.

The experiencing self lives its life continuously. It has moments of experience, one after the other, but the moments are lost after they happen. Even though we think they should count for something, most of them are completely ignored by the remembering self.


Two Distinct Selves

We have the remembering self and the experiencing self, and they are very distinct. The biggest difference between them is in the handling of time. From the point of view of the experiencing self, if you have a vacation, and the second week is just as good as the first, then the two-week vacation is twice as good as the one-week vacation. That’s not the way it works at all for the remembering self. For the remembering self, a two-week vacation is barely better than the one-week vacation because there are no new memories added. You have not changed the story. In this way, time is actually the critical variable that distinguishes a remembering self from an experiencing self; time has very little impact on the story.

The remembering self does more than remember and tell stories; it is actually the one that makes decisions. The experiencing self has no voice when making choices. We actually 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 as experiences. We think of our future as anticipated memories.


Two Notions of Happiness

We really should not think of happiness as a substitute for well-being. It is a completely different notion. How to enhance happiness depends on how you think, and whether you think of the remembering self or you think of the experiencing self. If you want to maximize the happiness of the two selves, you are going to end up doing very different things.  

The two selves bring up two notions of happiness. There are really two concepts of happiness that we can apply, one per self. We are capable of understanding the happiness of the experiencing self over time. If you ask for the happiness of the remembering self, it is a completely different thing. This is not about how happily a person lives. It is about how satisfied or pleased the person is when that person thinks about life.


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