In Thinking Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman writes, “The rules that govern the evaluation of the past are poor guides for decision making, because time does matter. The central fact of our existence is that time is the ultimate finite resource, but the remembering self ignores that reality. The neglect of duration combined with the peak-end rule causes a bias that favors a short period of intense joy over a long period of moderate happiness.”
When we think back on a vacation, we remember the beautiful waterfall that we saw, but we forget just how long and awful the drive and steep hike to the waterfall was. When we think about the work we want to do, we remember the highlights of any job experience, and we forget the hours of drudgery that may have gone with the job. We forget time when we think back on what has been positive and what has been negative in our lives, and this gives us a false sense of happiness and a false sense of what we actually enjoy, leading us to make biased decisions for the future.
There is research which shows that lengthy commutes and time spent in isolation are among the things that make us the most depressed and least happy. However, because of duration neglect, we don’t remember just how awful these things make us feel when we think about taking a new job or moving to a new house that is relatively far away from friends, work, and family. We put ourselves in situations that make us unhappy because they have the potential to bring us short bursts of joy that will stand out in our memory.
I think it is very troubling that a moderate level of happiness will become our background and will fade in our memories. The experiencing self can be quite content moment to moment, but the remembering self will seek out periods of intense joy, even at great costs to the experiencing self. This disconnect can lead people to behaviors and situations that seem like obvious miscalculations from the outside.
This seems to be part of what is at play when a man who is in a happy but unexciting marriage has an affair. I recognize that there are many factors at play, but part of the decision-making process can probably be explained by the brain seeking a short period of intense joy via an affair over the continued moderate happiness of a stable but somewhat boring marriage.
Our tendency toward short periods of intense joy is also probably a major factor in our decisions to make many of the purchases that we make. The instant we buy something we are happy, but ahead of our purchase we don’t think about all the time we have to invest in the the thing we buy, whether it is a car that needs maintenance, Christmas lights and decorations that we have to put up, take down, and box up for storage, or a fish tank that is going to require ongoing cleaning and maintenance on a regular basis. Our decision making is influenced by how we remember the past, and those memories forget time. They also discount moderate happiness in favor of intense joy, even if the intense joy is fleeting and doesn’t actually contribute to a happy and meaningful life as much as our base level of moderate happiness would.