Are You Happy?

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I find the question quite confusing.  My first reflex is to evaluate my current state of wellbeing: “Yes I’m fine thanks, I’m a bit tired, hangover, so in love I’m drooling at my desk, disappointed with my breakfast, so jealous I can’t think straight, excited because I’m going on a date in 20 minutes….” Soon after, a notion creeps into my head: is this really what I should be answering? Shouldn’t I be evaluating how I’ve done in life? How have I spent the past 10 years? Am I happily married? Did I make a million before I was 30? Have I been able to show my parents I’m not lazy? Did I travel to South America? The answer to all those questions is no.

According to Daniel Kahneman’s TED talk, it’s very difficult to think clearly about wellbeing and it might be time to adopt a more complicated view of what wellbeing really is. The discrepancy mainly lies between the experience of happiness and the memory of happiness – being happy in your life or being happy about your life.

We have two characters within ourselves that have different perceptions of happiness. Those two characters do not see eye to eye. The remembering self is a bully and dominates the perception of our experiences. We do not remember most of what we experience. We only retain a small portion as captured by our remembering self, who captures a story of what we will keep from our experiences.

Kahneman cites an experiment conducted in the 90s that monitored the perception of pain by two patients, Patient A and Patient B, undergoing a colonoscopy. They were asked to report their pain every 60 seconds during the treatment. Patient B experienced significantly more pain throughout the procedure than Patient A.  However, to the surprise of the researchers, Patient A had a much worse memory of the colonoscopy. The Perception of both patients relied on one critical aspect – how the procedure ended. Patient A had a much worse memory because the peak of his/her pain was at the end of the procedure, even though the total amount of pain perceived was much less.

According to Kahneman, there are three critical aspects of experience that the remembering self pays particular attention to:

  1. Changes
  2. Significant Moments
  3. Endings

Kahneman uses the example of how a two-week vacation is barely better than a one-week vacation. Why? Time has very little impact on the story that is remembered. If the second vacation week is similar to the first, what’s the point? The remembering self just doesn’t care about how much time we spent being on vacation.

As we strive to create positive memories for others and ourselves, we need to create opportunities for “significant moments” where positive emotions are released. Additionally, we need to pay more attention to endings.

The above mentioned findings can also be readily applicable to the medical practice. Here are some ideas:

  • Physicians delivering painful surgeries can adapt their procedures to create better memories for their patients. Trying to manipulate the procedure so the ending is the most pleasant, even if this means extending the procedure beyond its necessary time span.
  • Consider a patient’s stay in hospital. All too easily we neglect the patient when a procedure has been successful.  By taking into account which memories are stored we can ensure the release process is as pleasant as possible and help reduce trauma.
  • As a healthcare provider, make sure to say something encouraging to your patients when they leave the hospital or your practice. It doesn’t cost anything to be friendly and it can reduce the risk of patients avoiding treatment due to fear.

In sum: the understanding of memory building can and should be utilised in any customer experience and should be used on a greater scale to direct policy.

If we look back at the two conflicting characters of happiness inside us we realize that they care about two completely different things.  According to research (Gallup) the retrospective self highly values money and goals; it’s happy when it remembers that it’s made out of a lot of dough. The experiencing self is more of a hippy, as it mainly cares about spending time with the people and having a circle of like-minded souls.

The final point Kahneman makes is deeply moving. Our perception of happiness is dominated by memory, which we use to make decisions, and ultimately controls how we live our lives. The fundamental question here is: “Why do we put so much weight on memory rather than experience?” Kahneman response is eye-opening:

“We actually don’t choose between experiences, we choose between memories of experiences. And even when we think about the future, we don’t think of our future normally as experiences.”

I would like to take on board Kahneman’s rhetoric to cherish the present moment more greatly and include my sense of wellbeing in it. Life is made up of small moments and should not be marred with the snippets of memory retained in one’s mind as they are not a true or complete reflection of life.

Marcel Proust voiced this long before Daniel Kahneman, “All our final decisions are made in a state of mind that is not going to last.”

152922_254x191Widely regarded as the world’s most influential living psychologist, Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his pioneering work in behavioural economics — exploring the irrational ways we make decisions about risk.

 

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Based in Vienna, Anna graduated from Leeds University in 2004 in Politics and French Literature. She then founded a magazine featuring young artists, designers and photographers working in Austria and Eastern Europe. In 2005, Anna moved to London where she spent six years at Google working across several departments, most recently in Sales. In the past year, Anna worked as an interim executive at TV1, an independent news station in Bosnia. She is passionate about investigative, in-depth journalism that exposes problems, illuminates issues and provides practical or philosophical solutions to readers. Anna is a lover of science and is always seeking to learn more about our universe. She also loves cooking and traveling.