Happiness Self vs. Memory Self

September 8, 2014

The Relationship Between Happiness and Memory
Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate and founder of behavioral economics, says that we have two selves: our experiencing self and our memory self. Our experiencing self likes to be happy in the moment—with people we like, in a comfortable environment, and engaging in fun activities. Our memory self is more interested in goal attainment than comfort and familiarity; it seeks out experiences that make for good, memorable stories.

Our memory selves are more complex and unpredictable than our experiencing selves for these four reasons:

  1. Our memory selves can refashion painful experiences into a larger, happy narrative. We can be happy, in other words, for having made it through a series of challenging times or one particularly challenging moment.
  2. Only a very small portion of our experiences are recorded in memory. As a result, our memories might not necessarily reflect the balance of happiness and misery we’ve had over time.
  3. The ending of events tend to carry greater influence on our memory than other parts of the experience. If the event ends well, we’re more apt to remember it positively. If it ends poorly, chances are it will leave a negative imprint.
  4. We make decisions based not on past experiences, but on our memories of them (which aren’t always accurate, for reasons just enumerated).
Fun, Memory, and Happiness
In an earlier post, I talked about three types of Fun. Type I Fun (fun in the moment, but not particularly memorable) is the type that brings happiness to the experiencing self. Type II Fun (hard to go through, but fun to tell later) and Type III Fun (hell to go through, if in fact you survive, but completely changes your life positively afterward) are far more likely to be recorded by our memory selves.
The next time you plan a vacation, consider whether your goal is to please your experiencing self or your memory self (or, perhaps, both). Be deliberate about which self you intend to engage, how, and why.
Planning a vacation is time well spent. The anticipation of vacation tends to bring eight weeks of increased happiness. People on vacation tend not to be quite as happy–because of unduly high expectations, knowledge that it will soon end, or a stroke of bad luck/illness. And, even for very relaxing vacations, the happiness doesn’t last very long after the trip is over (two weeks at most).The length of the vacation doesn’t usually increase happiness either (sad to say), which means it’s probably best to plan several short vacations rather than one long one. The planning is where the happiness is, so get planning for one or both of your selves!

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