This post is also available in Dutch.
How happy are you? You can probably answer this question, after thinking about it for a little while. But surprisingly, your answer will probably not depend on how happy you’ve recently felt.
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According to Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, the question ‘how happy are you?’ is very difficult to answer. Therefore, people commonly reply to it using a clever mental strategy. They actually answer, unconsciously, a much easier but related question (a ‘heuristic’), by gauging how easily they can recall pleasant or unpleasant recent experiences. What occurs to them strongly affects how happy they report to be.
For example, people who recently got married, or who will get married in the near future, generally report higher levels of happiness than others. They are likely reminded of their marriage when thinking about their life satisfaction, and this thought makes them happy. If, however, we ask people repeatedly over time how much happiness they are experiencing in the present moment, it turns out that a recent or upcoming wedding actually does not affect their felt happiness at all. In other words, a big event only affects estimations of happiness, but not the momentary experience of happiness itself. The closer in time an important experience is, the more it impacts the happiness people report.
But not only significant life events affect happiness reports. Even small but recent events can affect estimates of life satisfaction. This became clear in a study by German scientists, in which participants were asked to copy a sheet of paper. Half of the participants found a dime on the copier, which was planted there by the researchers. The other half found nothing. Afterwards, the participants had to report how happy they were with their life. The dime caused a large increase in reported life satisfaction. So when answering the question ‘how happy are you?’, people clearly do not weigh all aspects of their life equally.
Experiencing versus remembering
To understand why experiences and happiness reports are so inconsistent, we return to Daniel Kahneman’s work. In his thinking, he defines two selves: the experiencing self and the remembering self. The experiencing self lives in the here-and-now, and the remembering self re-experiences past events from memory. According to Kahneman, the remembering self determines how we assess our lives.
As memory is dominated by strong emotional experiences, any day on which you felt happy throughout but experienced a strong negative event at the end will be remembered as very unpleasant. In the same way, the remembering self judges life satisfaction based on big emotionally laden events, rather than based on everyday experience itself. This is why memories of events are more important determinants of reported happiness than the way you actually feel throughout your life.
As Kahneman writes: ‘Odd as it may seem, I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.’
This blog was inspired by Daniel Kahneman’s work. He describes his research and related work in an accessible and fascinating way in his book ‘Thinking, fast and slow‘.