Monday, February 15, 2010

Kahneman on Happiness

It’s a TED tradition to open the conference with a Nobel Prize winner, and this year it was Daniel Kahneman, the founder of behavioural economics, which is certainly the science du jour these days. Kahneman has written many books on happiness and took us through how difficult it is to measure. In this opening Mindshift session, he said there are two separate measures of happiness, the happiness you actually experience versus the happiness you remember of that experience.

We experience events that result in happiness as they occur. That happiness is felt by our 'experiencing self'. Later, we remember these events, and our 'remembering self' feels happiness. The happiness of our remembering self might be either greater or lesser than that of our experiencing self. He uses the simple example of enjoying a lovely musical recording, which ends with an ugly screech at the end. The experiencing self would have had several minutes of happiness with a few seconds of displeasure at the end. However, the entire memory of the event will be coloured by those last few seconds. The remembering self is a powerful filter for our experiences.

Kahneman described research on people undergoing colonoscopies, who give feedback about their varying discomfort level in real time. This measures the response of their experiencing self. Later they were queried about the procedure, essentially querying the remembering self. Their memory of the discomfort depended almost entirely on how they felt at the end. So extending the treatment artificially so that it ends with low pain, determines the patients’ assessment of their overall pain, no matter their total experience.

During a two-week vacation, you’ll experience twice as much happiness as during a one-week vacation, but you don’t remember twice as much happiness. In fact, there is only a .5 correlation between the happiness of the experiencing and remembering self. So our happiness (which is about memories) is not equal to well-being (which has to do with experiences).

This has an impact on anyone trying to determine policies which will increase well-being: do you try to maximize well-being (the experience) or the remembered happiness (which is how, say, the voters will judge you). In US research, people’s ‘happiness’ rises as incomes rise to $60,000, and then plateaus, even thought you could argue that well-being continues to rise. The lack of money can make you unhappy, but beyond a relatively modest point, more doesn’t make you happier.

Judging by the number of later speakers who referred to the difference between the experiencing and remembering self, this was an insight that resonated with a lot of people.


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Guy said...

Lib - I'm curious what the selections were this year for the TED Book Club giveaways?

Lib Gibson said...

In response to Guy's question,I will dig through my bookcases for a couple list. There are three I remember from the last batch.

One book that I've read and enjoyed was Michael Specter's Denialism, which he talked about at TED.

Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Discipline was another, and my husband is enjoying that one.

The Edge book What Are You Optimistic About?: Today's Leading Thinkers on Why Things Are Good and Getting Better is great. It's a wonderful book to pick up if you only have little chunks of time.