Daniel Kahneman, economist, has studied the effects of memory on our perception of past suffering and happiness. He distinguishes experienced and remembered happiness, and emphasises that the two may be perceived very differently, even for the same individual and the same event. This is a crucial insight for the design of better subjective happiness surveys and, more generally, for our understanding of how we evaluate our own happiness.
“Everything looks better in black and white,” sings Paul Simon – or, as we more commonly say, we tend to see the past through rose-tinted glasses. The happiness of memories is a fascinating subject of psychology. Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist researching the psychology of economics, has made great contributions to our knowledge of what drives people to make particular choices.
Although in economics there is a common assumption that people (consumers) will act rationally, pursuing their own best interests, Kahneman and others  have repeatedly demonstrated that this is not always the case and that we will not be able to make sense of human choices if we don’t consider the irrational factors that often underlie human motivation and choices.
According to Kahneman, our memories are not accurate to the truth of the events. Instead, we remember a distorted version of the truth, in which we tend to neglect the duration of events. Our memories emphasise more strongly the beginning and end of an episode and any significant changes in between, while we tend to forget the long stretches of time in which our experience did not change greatly.
Experience and memory
One of the important distinctions regarding the happiness of memories is that between the experiencing and the remembering self. Indeed, it often seems like every human being is really two different persons: one that has an experience at some point in time, and a different person that creates a memory of that experience. The crucial insight is that this memory often bears very little resemblance to the actual experience that underlies it.
Imagine, says Kahneman, that you are listening to the recording of a concert, and you enjoy it very much. At some point, after, say, ten minutes of great music, there is a horrible screeching sound, and the recording stops. How would you describe what happened? We might be tempted to say that the experience of the music was destroyed by the screeching sound. But this would not be accurate. For ten minutes, you did have a great experience, and this experience, having already been experienced, cannot be altered by the screeching sound that came after it. Instead, what happened was that your memory of that experience was affected by the flaw in the recording. Whenever you try to remember this event and the music, you will always also remember the screeching end of the experience, and this will reduce your enjoyment of the memory – but it cannot possibly change the experience itself.
Now, why is this distinction regarding the happiness of memories interesting, beyond being a play on words, a purely academic kind of hair-splitting?
Who suffers more?
Because the experiencing self is the one that suffers, but the remembering self is the one taking the decisions. Kahneman (1999) relates the case of two patients who undergo a painful medical procedure. Patient A experiences pain for less than 10 minutes; the pain then ends abruptly and the procedure is over. Patient B has almost 25 minutes of pain. The first eight minutes the pain is similar to patient A’s; but then, over the next 17 minutes, his pain gradually subsides, and the examination is, when it finally ends, almost free of pain.
The question is not who of the two patients objectively suffered more. We know this. Patient B had all the pain of patient A, plus an additional 17 minutes of pain. Clearly, he suffered a lot more. But when we ask the two patients how they feel about their examinations, who reports being happier? Surprisingly, it’s patient B, the one who suffered more!
The problem now is that when these patients have to decide which doctor to visit for their next examination, patient B is going to happily choose the doctor who made him suffer more; while patient A will probably switch the doctor with whom he’s unhappy; but who, objectively, made him suffer a lot less.
Why are the results so strange? Kahneman says it is because the remembering self does not evaluate the happiness of memories correctly. Instead, our memories focus on:
the high and low points of an experience;
the end of the experience.
From these two elements, we build our memories. The story of our experience that we construct in this way, and that we remember for future reference, ignores almost completely the durations of events. Both patients remember the worst pain, but B remembers the (good) end, while A remembers the painful end. The duration of the experience is almost completely ignored.
The story of experiences and the happiness of memories
Everyone can verify this from their own experience. When you remember last year’s holiday, it is not the first day on the beach that you remember, and then the second day, and then the third day, all the way to the final day. Instead, you remember the best day (a sunny, perfect day on the beach); then the worst day: a stomach bug that made you spend a night on the toilet; and perhaps the last day, preparing to leave the place. All those perfect days in between are completely gone in your memory, blending into one single memory of a pleasant beach, sunshine and relaxation.
This is important for public policy, because it suggests, for instance, that it is counterproductive in terms of happiness to have people take long holidays all in one stretch and in the same place. A three-week holiday on the same beach is not going to leave a better lasting memory than a one-week holiday. The two additional holiday weeks are almost wasted, in terms of the memory of the experience, and they should better have been taken as separate holidays at a later time, to another place. Then they would have created their own lasting memories, and the holiday-maker would really have three times the amount of pleasant holiday memory compared to the one-week holiday-maker.
Experienced happiness and happiness of memories
For the study of happiness in general, this insight is important, because it suggests that when we talk of “happiness,” we need to be very specific about whether we refer to the happiness experienced during an event or the happiness remembered after the event since these two are distinct measures.
The happiness of experiences and the happiness of memories are two different things. The correlation between the two, says Kahneman, is about 0.5, which is the correlation between one’s height and the height of one’s father: so there is clearly a visible correlation, but it is not very strong: one can have a short father and be significantly taller (because of the genetic influence of the mother, for instance, or a different diet); and in the same way, one can have had a good experience of an event and, at the same time, a bad memory of it (or vice versa).
If we don’t distinguish clearly between the two ‘happinesses,’ we are in danger of messing up both the academic measurement of happiness and any public policy recommendations that are based on these academic findings.
Context, awareness, and life satisfaction
Another problem with the validity of life satisfaction surveys (that is, questions asked about the subject’s memory of his or her own life satisfaction due to past events) is the influence of the context surrounding the survey itself.
In a study referenced by Kahneman (Schwarz 1987), subjects were invited to fill out a life satisfaction survey. Before they did that, however, they were asked to copy a piece of paper, and for a random half of the subjects, a small coin was left on the photocopier. The subjects who had “found” the coin reported significantly higher life satisfaction than those who hadn’t. Similarly (Schwarz and Clore 1983), subjects report higher life satisfaction on days with good weather, compared to rainy days.
Interestingly, these biases can sometimes be avoided just by making them explicit and pointing them out to the subjects. If the weather was explicitly asked about in the survey, then it had no influence on the reported life satisfaction (Schwarz and Clore 1983); and, presumably, making the subjects aware of the fact that the found coin on the photocopier might affect their reported happiness, would help reduce (or eliminate) the bias caused by the coin.
Similarly, previous questions in a survey tend to influence the answers to the following questions. This is pretty obvious: if a survey first reminds you of your failures, past accidents, and deaths of beloved people, and then asks about your life satisfaction, the result is bound to be different than if the survey first recounted successes, past loves, and pleasant memories.
But again, the role of awareness in cancelling the bias introduced by the context can be used by the researcher in order to get a better, more meaningful survey. By having the subject explicitly recall the context in which the survey was taken, we can reduce the effect of this context on the reported life satisfaction and get better results.
Let’s stop here for the moment. In the next post we will discuss how the happiness researcher could actually design a survey that avoids the problems discussed above. Stay tuned.
This is part 3 of a series of posts on happiness. Find the whole series here.
 For example, Dan Ariely (2008): Predictably Irrational.
Here is a fascinating book that discusses in an easy to understand, conversational tone recent findings about the irrational forces that shape our behaviour. If you liked this article, then you’ll love that book. Please note that this is an affiliate link. If you buy through this link, Daily Philosophy will earn a small commission at no cost to you. Thanks!
Kahneman, Daniel and Krueger, Alan B. (2006). Developments in the Measurement of Subjective Well-Being. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 20(1), pp.3-24.
Kahneman, D. (1999). Objective happiness. Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology, 3, 25.
Schwarz, Norbert. 1987. Stimmung als Information: Untersuchungen zum Einfluß von Stimmungen auf die Bewertung des eigenen Lebens. Heidelberg: Springer Verlag.
Schwarz, Norbert and G. L. Clore. 1983. “Mood, Misattribution, and Judgments of Well-Being: Informative and Directive Functions of Affective States.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 45:3, pp. 513–23.