Day 608: Memories Vs Experience

And my talk today will be mostly about these cognitive traps. This applies to laypeople thinking about their own happiness, and it applies to scholars thinking about happiness, because it turns out we're just as messed up as anybody else is. The first of these traps is a reluctance to admit complexity. It turns out that the word "happiness" is just not a useful word anymore, because we apply it to too many different things. I think there is one particular meaning to which we might restrict it, but by and large, this is something that we'll have to give up and we'll have to adopt the more complicated view of what well-being is. The second trap is a confusion between experience and memory; basically, it's between being happy in your life, and being happy about your life or happy with your life. And those are two very different concepts, and they're both lumped in the notion of happiness. And the third is the focusing illusion, and it's the unfortunate fact that we can't think about any circumstance that affects well-being without distorting its importance. I mean, this is a real cognitive trap. There's just no way of getting it right. 
Now, I'd like to start with an example of somebody who had a question-and-answer session after one of my lectures reported a story, and that was a story -- He said he'd been listening to a symphony, and it was absolutely glorious music and at the very end of the recording, there was a dreadful screeching sound. And then he added, really quite emotionally, it ruined the whole experience. But it hadn't. What it had ruined were the memories of the experience. He had had the experience. He had had 20 minutes of glorious music. They counted for nothing because he was left with a memory; the memory was ruined, and the memory was all that he had gotten to keep.  
Sure. I think the most interesting result that we found in the Gallup survey is a number, which we absolutely did not expect to find. We found that with respect to the happiness of the experiencing self. When we looked at how feelings, vary with income. And it turns out that, below an income of 60,000 dollars a year, for Americans -- and that's a very large sample of Americans, like 600,000, so it's a large representative sample -- below an income of 600,000 dollars a year...
60,000. (Laughter) 60,000 dollars a year, people are unhappy, and they get progressively unhappier the poorer they get. Above that, we get an absolutely flat line. I mean I've rarely seen lines so flat. Clearly, what is happening is money does not buy you experiential happiness, but lack of money certainly buys you misery, and we can measure that misery very, very clearly. In terms of the other self, the remembering self, you get a different story. The more money you earn, the more satisfied you are. That does not hold for emotions. - Daniel Kahnemn

I am using another TED Talk as the inspiration / topic for my post. This talk is quite interesting and is presented by Daniel Kahneman, the father of behavioural economics. 

So most of us evaluate our lives according to our collections of memories of past events. Interestingly, those collections of past events are what shape who you are today. In this sense, who you are is derived from your memories of your experiences, but also from the actual experiences you had in the moments of those events. Together, those two aspects contribute to the shaping and development of who you are. 

When I say that it is the memory of an experience as well as the experience itself that changes you, I mean that in the moment that you are living something in the HERE and NOW, that moment is having an effect on you - on who you are - and this happens because of the series of actions and reactions that you choose to have in this moment of HERE and NOW. Once the moment is passed and has become the past you are now dealing with only the memory of that moment - and it has been determined by psychologists and various others that memories are certainly not accurate reflections of the past but more like your interpretation thereof. So now you have the choices you made in a moment that has passed and carry with you into the here and now a memory of the past moment. Some memories are sharper than others and influence your mood and thoughts which is what I mean by memories influencing and, if you allow it, changing you. 

So now you are in the HERE and NOW, but living in a memory of a moment in the past. Essentially you're in the past and the present at the same time. Your interpretations of the past moment have warped it - possibly beyond recognition of what it really was when you were in the moment - yet you carry with you the effects of the reality of the moment and the illusion of your memories. A dichotomy of the person, to say the least. 

When you get right down to it, you cannot really trust yourself if you cannot even hold on to an accurate recollection of a moment of your own past that was once the HERE and NOW for you - a moment that you were fully present and accounted for. The problem lies not in your ability to recollect, but rather in your ability to distort and modify (and then to believe that those distortions are the truth). In the end you distort your memories because you want them to reflect to yourself the way you want to see yourself (even if you're depressed - you will then want to see yourself in a negative light). As long as you desire a specific self image and self definition, your mind is going to go out of its way to give that to you.