The Happiness of the Moment

The Happiness of the Moment

In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes, “remember that neither the future nor the past pains thee, but only the present.” He also writes, “if though holdest to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with thy present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which though utterest, though wilt live happy.”

 

Aurelius is a foundational Stoic thinker. A key part of stoicism is remaining in the present moment, focused on where you are now, what you are doing now, and how you can best use your current time. Worrying about what will happen in the future and feeling regretful of what has happened in the past only distracts from the present moment, bringing anxiety to situations that on their own do not cause any negativity in our lives.

 

The stoics, it turns out, were largely correct about finding happiness in the present moment. Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking Fast and Slow, writes, “Our emotional state is largely determined y what we attend to, and we are normally focused on our current activity and immediate environment. There are exceptions, where the quality of subjective experience is dominated by recurrent thoughts rather than by the events of the moment.”

 

Happiness is generally an emotion we feel when we are present. By refocusing our mind on our present activity and finding constructive and useful outlets for our attention, we can find happiness, even if our past has been a nightmare or if we are afraid of what will come in the future. It is important to learn lessons from the past and important to plan for the future to be successful and maximize our opportunities to meaningfully engage in the world, but when we spend all our time allowing recurrent thoughts to dominate our mind, we will diminish our overall happiness. If we constantly think about something embarrassing from the past, if we are always worried about an upcoming deadline, or if we only think forward to vacations and what we would rather be doing, then we won’t be happy in the moment. We won’t make the most of our current situation, and we won’t be content where we are. By focusing on the present and attending to a single present task or activity (even if it is just our breath), then we can root ourselves to our current state, and allow the regret and fears from our past and future to begin to melt away.

Happiness, Well-being, & Money

A question that is always asked and played with in movies, at family dinners, and in our popular culture is can money buy happiness? We will all say that the answer is no, especially when we hear about a wealthy person who commits suicide or has their life unravel in a public manner. Nevertheless, we all pursue a relatively high level of wealth and income, and we recognize that having more money would mean that we could eat out more often, take more vacations, and buy more things. There does seem to be some level of happiness that can be achieved through more money.

 

Daniel Kahneman shared research on the question in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. He writes, “an analysis of more than 450,000 responses to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, a daily survey of 1,000 Americans, provides a surprisingly definite answer to the most frequently asked question in well-being research: Can money buy happiness? The conclusion is that being poor makes one miserable, and that being rich may enhance one’s life satisfaction, but does not (on average) improve experienced well-being.”

 

Kahneman’s quote is incredibly helpful because it splits apart happiness and well-being, particularly our experienced happiness and general well-being. The part of our brain that reflects back on our life and our overall happiness is not the same part of our brain that actually lives the experiences we have. As Kahneman showed earlier in the book, asking students how happy they are and then asking them how many dates they had in the last month gives you two separate responses with no correlation, but ask the questions in reverse, and suddenly those students who haven’t had many dates tend to respond that they are less happy. The reflecting part of our brain will experience happiness differently depending on the frames you place it in. The same thing seems to happen with happiness, well-being, and money.

 

When we think about how happy we are overall, we pause, reflect on our living condition, think about our relative success compared to others, and remember the fun events in our lives. Our happiness is improved when we are more sure of ourselves based on our relative social status and as we have more enjoyable and memorable experiences. However, this doesn’t mean that we are more happy than other people in our experienced well-being from moment to moment.

 

The rich person may feel isolated, may be insecure about losing their wealth, or may have the same family and social problems that anyone else has. The momentary emotional status of an individual is not impacted by wealth as much as our reflective happiness. Kahneman’s quote helps to pull these two aspects of happiness apart to see what is happening and understand the role of money. Kahneman continues to write that experienced well-being stops increasing as dramatically once an individual’s household income reaches about $75,000 in high cost areas. Subjectively, in the course of our lives, money doesn’t make us happier from moment to moment once we have received a high, but relatively reasonable income.
Instagram Vacations - Joe Abittan

Instagram Vacations

An important goal of our vacations these days is to take pictures of the unique, interesting, and memorable experiences of our trip. We will go out of our way to get the perfect picture, whether it is with a celebrity, atop a waterfall, or with a plate of food at a busy restaurant where we had to wait an hour for a table. The actual experience of getting to the point where we can take our famed picture may require a long wait in a cold line, a difficult hike up a steep mountain, or a boring car ride for miles to get to a random yet delicious dinner in the middle of no where. We put ourselves through unpleasant experiences while on vacation because the remembering self wants a story to tell about the trip we took.

 

Getting back to the office, returning to school, or catching up with family after our trip is where the remembering self will be in action. Telling our friends and family that we went to the same beach as last year, sat on the shore, read, and didn’t do anything novel or exciting will make the whole vacation feel less meaningful. Perhaps we really just need a boring and relaxing break, but the remembering self doesn’t want us to have a forgettable experience.

 

So instead of the boring and uninspiring vacation where we caught up on sleep and enjoyed lounging around eating simple food, we set out for the perfect Instagram vacation. We relentlessly photograph all the interesting things we do, the famous people we can pose next to for 2 seconds, and the tasty food we eat. We give up a little of the present moment experience in order to capture a picture that we likely won’t spend much time looking at in the future. As Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking Fast and Slow, “The photographer does not view the scene as a moment to be savored, but as a future memory to be designed.”

 

Instead of taking vacations to get away, relax, and relieve stress, we plan vacations to give us the best possible memories. “In many cases,” Kahneman writes, “we evaluate touristic vacations by the story and the memories that we expect to store.” In his book Kahneman shares research to suggest that students misremember how enjoyable a vacation was when it didn’t have unique and memorable experiences. They become less likely to say they would repeat the trip if it was enjoyable but not unique.

 

This ties in with ideas from Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brian. Hanson would argue that vacations are not about relaxing and taking time away from work or school. He would go further than Kahneman and say that vacations are not about memories but are instead about showing off our wealth, our connections, and how interesting we are by traveling to unique places. We pick memorable vacations because the remembering self wants to craft an interesting story about who we are and the trips we take. We want to signal something to the people around us. We want to impress them, and a boring vacation at the same beach as last year just won’t cut it, even if we would enjoy it more in the moment.
We Care About Narratives

We Care About Narratives

I have written a lot about narratives in the last few months. We understand the world via narratives. Scientific discoveries, economic measurements, facts, and statistics don’t mean anything to us in isolation and are not understood by our brains in isolation. Everything that we observe and experience is incorporated into a story, and we care about the narratives that we create.

 

The way we think about ourselves and others is understood through these narratives. Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking Fast and Slow looks at the ways we think about narratives, and how our narratives influence our thoughts, our behaviors and decisions, and the lenses through which we interpret the world. He writes, “we all care intensely for the narrative of our own life and very much want it to be a good story, with a decent hero.” We do things to improve our narrative, we work hard to give ourselves a good ending, and we create ideas within the relationships and frames of our lives that give us meaning and purpose for what we do and who we are.

 

From this narrative understanding of the world come two interesting observations from Kahneman that I want to highlight. One is duration neglect, the other is caring for people via caring for their story.

 

“Duration neglect is normal in a story,” writes Kahneman, “and the ending often defines its character.”

 

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the 23 Marvel movies that are out now), Iron Man is one of the most important characters. He has a huge character arc across the movies, developing from a spoiled billionaire playboy to the sacrificial hero at the end. And it is the ending that defines Tony Stark more than almost anything else across the movies. We forget that many of the villains across the entire saga are a creation of his own hubris, his own short-sightedness, and his own ego. We discount the times he fell short, because in the end he is the hero who saves the universe. Duration neglect kicks in, and we understand Tony by the end of his narrative, a bittersweet goodbye to the Iron Man hero who kicked off the whole movie phenomenon.

 

Of course a comic book movie series exaggerates our relationships to narratives and life. Iron Man and the rest of the characters are larger than life, but nevertheless, they do give us a window to understand how we understand the real world. You want the lives of those around you to end peacefully and you want people to feel fulfilled. You feel sad for the person who died young, before a wedding or before the birth of a child. It doesn’t matter how happy their life was overall, you want their narrative to have the Tony Stark arc, you wanted their narrative to be complete with a perfect ending.

 

And this brings us to the second idea from Kahneman, “caring for people often takes the form of concern for the quality of their stories, not for their feelings.” Stories where someone’s life ends before they could fulfill themselves feel hollow. We understand other people by understanding their story. We rarely think of someone as a generally happy or generally sad person without considering whether their life and their story has been good or bad. We judge the stories of others, and have trouble understanding how someone who is famous, rich, or seems to have a great career could be sad and empty. At the same time, we don’t understand how someone in poverty with few close family members could find happiness. We focus on changing the stories of others, rather than on helping them be happy.

 

We care about narratives and want stories to end well, want people to find meaning in their narratives, and understand and interact with people based on the narratives we tell ourselves and the narratives people present to us. Development, time, and individual events mean little compared to the grand arc of a narrative and how it comes to a close. When we help others and try to support them, we are often doing so in a way that is meant to boost both of our narratives.
The Remembering Self

More on the Remembering Self

Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow describes the remembering self as a tyrant, ruling what we do in the present moment by controlling our thoughts of the past. My last few posts have focused on how poorly we remember events from our past, and how we can be thought of as having an experiencing self and a remembering self. The experiencing self, the one that actually has to wake-up and get out of bed to face the day, is the one that actually lives our life. The remembering self only reflects back on what we have done. It doesn’t remember how awful writing all those school assignments was, it doesn’t remember how tired we were going to the gym for the fourth day in a row, and it doesn’t remember how pleasant it was to just relax for a whole day in front of the TV. Its memory is faulty, plagued by errors and biases in thinking, giving it a false sent of past experiences.

 

The remembering self doesn’t accurately remember the past, and it isn’t aware of itself or its separation from the experiencing self. It behaves and thinks much differently from the experiencing self, but within our minds, we don’t notice when we slip between the experiencing and remembering self, and we don’t realize how much we forget when we look back at our experiences. This creates problems when we think about how we should live, what we would like to do with our lives, and what our experiences have been. Kahneman writes,

 

“Confusing experience with the memory of it is a compelling cognitive illusion – and it is the substitution that makes us believe a past experience can be ruined. The experiencing self does not have a voice. The remembering self is sometimes wrong, but it is the one that keeps score and governs what we learn from living, and it is the one that makes decisions. What we learn from the past is to maximize the qualities of our future memories, not necessarily of our future experience. This is the tyranny of the remembering self.”

 

In my life, I want to look back and remember that I have done a lot of running. Many days, I don’t actually feel like getting out on a jog, but I know that in the future I will want to remember that I ran X number more miles in December of 2020 than I did in December of 2019. The experience of cold toes, of headlamp impressions on my forehead, and the hard work of running in the dark early mornings doesn’t matter to my remembering self. Those things will be diminished in my memory compared to the memory of having done something difficult and impressive. The fact that my remembering self has different priorities than my experiencing self is healthy with regard to running (as long as I don’t go overboard), but it can also be costly and even dangerous in our lives. The father who spends all his time working and neglects his children is being ruled by the remembering self in a similar way. He wants to remember himself as being hard working, as sacrificing for his family, and as being a successful high-earner. He gives up time he may enjoy hanging out with his kids, because the remembering self won’t remember that enjoyment as positively as the economic gains will be remembered from the extra hours of work, or as strongly as the social media pictures posted online. This example isn’t perfect, but it does contrast the way in which our remembering self can drive us toward unhealthy behaviors stemming from the remembering self’s more selfish take on our lives.
Experiencing Versus Remembering

Experiencing Versus Remembering

My last two posts have been about the difference in how we experience life and how we remember what happens in our life. This is an important idea in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman explains the ways in which our minds make predictable errors when thinking statistically, when trying to remember the past, and when making judgements about reality. Kahneman describes our mind as having two selves. He writes,

 

“The experiencing self is the one that answers the question: Does it hurt now? The remembering self is the one that answers the question: How was it on the whole? Memories are all we get to keep from our experience of living, and the only perspective that we can adopt as we think about our lives is therefore that of the remembering self.”

 

In my post about the Peak-End Rule I highlighted findings from Kahneman that show that the remembering self isn’t very good at making accurate judgments about a whole experience. It more or less averages out the best (or worst) part of an experience with the ending of the experience. The ups and downs throughout, the actual average quality overall, isn’t that relevant to the way we think back on an experience.

 

Duration Neglect also demonstrates how the remembering self misjudges our experiences. A long monotonous experience with a positive ending can be remembered much more fondly than a generally positive short experience with a bad ending.

 

When I think about the experiencing and remembering self, I try to remember that my remembering self is not able to perfectly recall the reality of my experiences. I try to remember that my experiencing self is only alive in the present moment, and when I am experiencing something great, I try hard to focus on that moment, rather than try to focus on something I want to remember (this is the difference between sitting and watching a beautiful sunset versus trying to capture the perfect picture of the sunset for social media). Keeping in mind the distinctions between the experiencing and remembering self is helpful for avoiding the frustration, guilt, and pressure that the remembering self heaps on you when you don’t feel as though you have done enough or accomplished enough. The remembering self is only one part of you, and its revisionist view of your history isn’t real. There is real value in finding a balance between living for the experiencing self and living with the knowledge of what fuels the remembering self. Tilting too far either way can make us feel frustrated and overwhelmed, or unaccomplished, and we all want to be somewhere between the two extremes, giving up a little to prop up the other in different ways at different times of our lives.
Duration Neglect

Duration Neglect

My last post was about the Peak-End Rule, the way our brains remember events where we subjectively rate them based on an average between the peak moment and the end. A great experience can be ruined by a poor ending, while a poor experience can be remember more positively if it ends on a high note. Duration Neglect goes along with the Peak-End Rule to shape the way we subjectively remember an experience that doesn’t necessarily align with our actual experience of the event in the moment.

 

Regarding an experiment with individuals rating painful colonoscopies, Kahneman writes, “the duration of the procedure had no effect whatsoever on the ratings of total pain.”

 

Again, what mattered for individuals is the peak level of pain and the pain they experienced at the end of the procedure. Patients who had a short colonoscopy with a painful ending rated the entire experience as more painful than individuals who had an equal peak in pain, but overall had a longer colonoscopy that ended on a less painful note. If two patients experience the same peak of pain, but one experiences it early rather than at the end, the subjective pain ratings will be skewed, even if the person who had the peak at the end had less total pain because their procedure was shorter.

 

What this means for gastroenterologists is that it is better for the procedure to go long than to be painful. We can tolerate pain as long as it is spaced out and as long as the ending is relatively better than the peak. A procedure that lasts 20 minutes with an average pain level of 4 is better than a 5 minute procedure with an average pain level of 6. The mind doesn’t remember how long the pain lasted, it only remembers how bad the pain was at the peak.

 

We can translate this into our daily lives as well. If we know there is going to be something unpleasant, then we can try to space it out and frontload the unpleasantness, knowing that the ending will lift the overall subjective feeling if it is relatively better. And, if we have something that is really positive, we can see that it is truly is better to leave on a high note. Once we reach a peak in terms of positivity, any additional goodness will only diminish the overall rating of people’s experience. Adding more positive notes that don’t quite match the peak doesn’t actually help improve the overall level that people will ascribe to the event when they think back on it.
The Peak-End Rule - Joe Abittan

The Peak-End Rule

Our experiencing self and our remembering self are not the same person. Daniel Kahneman shows this in his book Thinking Fast and Slow by gathering survey information from people during unpleasant events and then asking them to recall their subjective experience of the event later. The experiencing self and the remembering self rate the experiences differently.

 

We can see this in our own lives. During the day you may have had a frustrating project to work on, but when you lay down at night and reflect on the day, you might not remember the project being as bad as it felt in the moment. Alternatively, you might sit around all day binging a TV series and really enjoy a lazy relaxing day. However, you might remember the day much differently when you look back at it, no longer appreciating the experience but regretting it.

 

With our brain experiencing and remembering events differently, we are set up for some strange cognitive biases when we reflect on past events and think about how we should behave in the future. The Peak-End Rule is one bias that factors into how we remember events and can influence our future choices.

 

You might expect to rate a poor experience based on how bad the worst moment of the experience was. Say you had to go to a child’s gymnastics routine that you were really dreading. A certain part of the routine may have been all but unbearable to you, but if at the end you found a $20 bill on your way back to the car. Your judgement of the event is going to be influenced by your good luck. Rather than basing your judgement of the show purely on that dreadful routine, or on an average of the whole evening, you are going to find a spot somewhere between the worst moment and the happy moment when you found $20. Its not an average of the whole time, and its not really indicative of your actual experience. A random factor at the end shifted your perspective.

 

In his book Kahneman writes about the Peak-End Rule as “The global retrospective rating predicted by the average of the level of pain reported at the worst moment of the experience and at its end.” This definition from Kahneman comes after describing a study with participants sticking their hands in icy cold water and subjectively judging the experience later.

 

The peak-end rule is not limited to painful and unpleasant experiences. Instead of a miserable experience, you could have a truly wonderful experience that ends up being remembered somewhat poorly by a momentary blip at the end. Picture a concert that is great, but flops at the end with the speaker system failing. You won’t reflect back on the entirety of the experience as positively as you should simply because a single song at the end was ruined.

 

What we should remember from this is that endings matter a lot. Don’t end your meeting with the bad news, end it with the good news so that people walk out on a positive note. The ending of an experience weighs much more heavily than everything in the middle. The points that matter are the peak (either the best or worst part) and the ending. A great ending can buoy a poor experience while a bad ending can tank a great experience. For company meetings, job interviews, or performances, make sure you bring the ending to a high point to lift the overall level of the subjective experience.
Experienced Utility - Joe Abittan

Experienced Utility

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman presents an interesting situation. Imagine you need to receive a series of injections, and the pain for each injection each time is always the same. Suppose in one situation, the series of injections is 20 shots, and in another situation the series is 6 shots. If you were to imagine that you were in each series, would you pay the same amount to have the total number of shots for the series reduced by 2? In one situation you would go from 20 to 18, and in the other from 6 to 4.

 

Kahneman found that people were more likely to pay more to reduce the injection load if the total number of shots for their series was 6 rather than 18. In Kahneman’s eyes, this thinking process is an error. He writes, “at least in some cases, experienced utility is the criterion by which a decision should be assessed. A decision maker who pays different amounts to achieve the same gain of experienced utility (or be spared the same loss) is making a mistake.”

 

Experienced utility is the overall happiness, usefulness, or enjoyment (more or less) that we get out of life, a product, or an experience. In the situation I described above, each injection is equally as painful. The first shot is not any worse than the second, the sixth, or the 15th. So whether you are getting 6 shots or 20 shots, you are still having a similar reduction in the overall amount of pain that you are avoiding when you get two fewer shots. In pure experienced utility, there is no difference between reducing the shot count from 20 to 18 or from 6 to 4. It is two fewer shots, the same reduction in pain, in both instances.

 

But when we imagine ourselves in each situation, it is the low total shot count where we decide we would spend more to reduce the overall level of pain we experience. We are violating the terms of equal experienced utility and instead making a relative comparison. Two is 1/3rd of six, and reducing our pain by 1/3rd is relatively much better than reducing our pain by 1/10th which is what we would do when we moved from 20 to 18.

 

This problem reminds me of sitting first class on an airplane. Sitting on your own couch is much more enjoyable than sitting first class on an airplane. You have a larger TV to enjoy, you don’t have to pay extra for WiFi, and you have an entire kitchen and pantry of snacks available to you. But if someone asked you how much you would pay on any given day for the privilege of enjoying your living room you would look at them and laugh.

 

But we are all willing to pay huge amounts for smaller and less comfy chairs, to have to turn our phones off, and for overpriced alcoholic beverages in first class on an airplane. We are making a similar mistake in terms of experienced utility by making relative comparisons. First class is substantially better than coach, but much worse than our own living room. When we fail to recognize our experienced utility, and instead open ourselves up to paying for relative utility, then we risk making inconsistent decisions and paying far more in some situations than we would dream to pay in others. The relative frame of reference that we adopt could be manipulated by actors for their own ends, to convince us to pay more for things than what we would in another frame of reference.
Defaults Matter

Defaults Matter

I will discuss defaults in depth when I begin writing about Nudge by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, but it is important to think about our responses to default choices in the context of Daniel Kahneman’s research in Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman argues that we can think of our brains as having two different operating systems. System 1 is the fast and automatic system. It scans the environment, takes in the salient information around us, filters out the unimportant information, and makes quick judgements without putting too much power into the thinking process. System 2 is where System 1 sends the more difficult problems that it can’t handle on its own. System 1 takes the information it can absorb, packages that information with a particular reference frame, and sends it to System 2 for slower, more energy intensive thought. And this is where the defaults matter.

 

System 1 will fall back on the default when System 2 doesn’t want to engage with a problem. Because System 2 is energy intensive we only use it when we need to (like when we are cooking a new recipe, trying to complete our taxes, or trying to win scrabble). For most decisions, we can just fall back on the default and be fine. Instead of making a tough decision, we can rely on simple standard choices without having to consider alternatives or justify why we made a particular choice. Kahneman shows how powerful the default can be by examining the rates at which people register to be organ donors in different states and countries. He writes, “The best single predictor of whether or not people will donate their organs is the designation of the default option that will be adopted without having to check a box.”

 

For most decisions and thoughts, System 1 scans the environment and makes a quick judgment as to whether or not we need to do anything. If it determines that there is a need for more comprehensive thought, then it engages System 2, but it only packages the information it could take in during its quick scan. So while our System 2 is powerful and can work through lots of information, it can only work on the information from System 1’s quick scan. That quick scan includes the default option, but doesn’t include the various other options that were not immediately available. This can create anchoring effects and limit the categories we consider for possible alternatives from the default. When someone yells an answer in Family Feud and everyone else comes up with similar answers in the same category, we are seeing people anchor to a default category for responses. When your company enrolls you in a 401K and automatically sets your contribution limit, any change that you make is likely to be a small deviation from that preset level, you are not very likely to change all the way to 0 or make a huge deviation from that default anchor. Indeed, if you have ever been stopped in freeway traffic and only after stopping realized that you could have taken numerous different routes to avoid the traffic jam, you have seen how limiting our lives can be when we stick to a simple default and fail to consider the various other possibilities available to us.

 

The reason that defaults matter so much is because we are lazy, because System 2 doesn’t do much work if it doesn’t have to, and because System 2 gets a limited set of information from System 1. Our perspectives, opinions, and the world of possibilities available to us is anchored around the default. When I write about Nudge I will get more in depth with thinking about the importance of various defaults in different areas of our lives.