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.
Stoicism in Thinking Fast and Slow

Stoicism in Thinking Fast and Slow

“We spend much of our day anticipating, and trying to avoid, the emotional pains we inflict on ourselves,” writes Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. “How seriously should we take these intangible outcomes, the self-administered punishments (and occasional rewards) that we experience as we score our lives?”


Kahneman’s point is that emotions such as regret greatly influence the decisions we make. We are so afraid of loss that we go out of our way to minimize risk, to the point where we may be limiting ourselves so much that we experience costs that are actually greater than the potential loss we wanted to avoid. Kahneman is pointing to something that stoic thinkers, dating back to Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, addressed – our ability to be captured by our emotions and effectively held hostage by fears of the future and pain from the past.


In Letters from a Stoic, Seneca writes, “Why, indeed, is it necessary to summon trouble – which must be endured soon enough when it has once arrived, or to anticipate trouble and ruin the present through fear of the future? It is foolish to be unhappy now because you may be unhappy at some future time.” I think Kahneman would agree with Seneca’s mindset. In his book, Kahneman write that we should accept some level of risk and some level of regret in our lives. We know we will face regret if we experience some type of failure. We can prepare for regret and accept it without having to ruin our lives by taking every possible precaution to try to avoid the potential for failure, pain, and loss. It is inevitable that we are going to lose loved ones and have unfortunate accidents. We can’t prepare and shield ourselves from every danger, unless we want to completely withdrawal from all that makes us human.


Ryan Holiday wrote about the importance of feeling and accepting our emotions in his book The Obstacle is the Way. He wrote, “Real strength lies in the control or, as Nassim Taleb put it, the domestication of one’s emotions, not in pretending they don’t exist.” Kahneman would also agree with Holiday and Taleb. Econs, the term Kahneman and other economists use to refer to theoretical humans who act purely rationally, are not pulled by emotions and cognitive biases. However, Econs are not human. We experience emotions when investments don’t pan out, when bets go the wrong way, and when we face multiple choices and are unsure if we truly made the best decision. We have to live with our emotions and the weight of failure or poor investments. Somehow, we have to work with these emotions and learn to continue even though we know things can go wrong. Holiday would suggest that we must be present, but acknowledge that things wont always go well and learn to recognize and express emotions in a healthy way when things don’t go well.


Kahneman continues, “Perhaps the most useful is to be explicit about the anticipation of regret. If you can remember when things go badly that you considered the possibility of regret carefully before deciding, you are less likely to experience less of it.” In this way, our emotions can be tools to help us make more thoughtful decisions, rather than anchors we are tethered to and hopelessly unable to escape. A thoughtful consideration of emotions, a return to the present moment, and acceptance of the different emotions we may feel after a decision are all helpful in allowing us to live and exist with some level of risk, some level of uncertainty, and some less of loss. These are ideas that stoic thinkers wrote about frequently, and they show up for Kahneman when he considers how we should live with our mental biases and cognitive errors.
Daniel Kahneman on Regret

Daniel Kahneman on Regret

Regret is an interesting emotion and worth deep consideration. It is a System 2 emotion, that is, an emotion we feel when we pause, reflect on our life or actions, and consider the decisions we have or have not made in the past. System 1, the active, fast, and general default mode of our brain doesn’t feel regret. It lives in the moment and takes action based on our current inputs. It can receive feedback from System 2’s regret and make adjustments with new decisions and actions, but it is too busy with the present moment and environment to be the one building the emotion of regret.


Regret also stems from our ability to imagine different realities. Daniel Kahneman describes it as an emotion associated with loss and mistakes that allows us to self-correct and perceive different opportunities and realities that we might want to live within. It can modify how we act and behave, before we have even been faced with a decision. Kahenman writes, “decision makers know that they are prone to regret, and the anticipation of that painful emotion plays a part in many decisions.”


If I pause to think about regret, I typically think about a person on their deathbed, regretful for all the things they never did in their life. A fear of being this person has pushed me to try to do more, be more involved, and have varied and interesting experiences. The trite quote is that people on their deathbed are more regretful for the things they didn’t do than the things in life they did do. In this view, people recognize regret, and it turns into a fear of missing out that spurs people to action before it is too late, before they regret not taking action.


However, this idea may not represent the most powerful feelings of regret that we may experience. Kahneman writes, “People expect to have stronger emotional reactions (including regret) to an outcome that is produced by action than to the same outcome when it is produced by inaction.” As an example, Kahneman presents two fictional characters. Both have investments with companies A and B. One individual considers making a greater investment in company A, but does not and loses out on $1,200 of potential gains. The other removes some of her investment from company A, and she ends up with $1,200 less than what she could have received if she had done nothing. The consensus among people who read Kahneman’s examples indicate that the person who actively pulled money out of company A feels more regret than the person who never added extra investment funds to the company. Doing nothing and missing a potential gain is less regretful than taking an action that creates a perceived loss.


Loss aversion is powerful, and we are more likely to take actions to avoid losses to help us avoid feelings of regret rather than take chances at potential gains. The gains we don’t receive won’t cause as much regret as losses we do receive. Regret is not just the fear of missing out or the fear of having done too little that I described earlier. It is a powerful emotion that kicks in when we reflect on our life and see that our actions directly lead to losses and mistakes that we made. We may begin to change our behaviors and decisions to avoid similar losses in the future, and avoid the regret that those losses will bring, but that can drive us into making irrational choices in the present moment, with the hope of not losing out in the future.