The difference between our remembering self & our experiencing self - Happy + Well : Happy + Well

The difference between our remembering self & our experiencing self

Written by on June 12, 2014 in Happiness with 2 Comments


images-1How many of us when asked if we’re happy distinguish between the happiness we’re experiencing right now in this present moment versus how happy we feel about life in general? It’s an important question because until quite recently, many working in the field of happiness research tended to conflate the two making it almost impossible to “think straight about happiness.”

According to psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman who’s presenting here, this is but one “cognitive trap” scholars often fall into when studying happiness. The other is failing to acknowledge that humans “can’t think about any circumstance that affects well-being without distorting its importance.”

The example he gives to illustrate this is that of a person who after attending a concert performance tells how the music was wonderful but that the whole experience was ruined because at the very end there was a terrible screeching sound. On the contrary says Kahneman, “What [the screeching sound] ruined were the memories of the experience. He had the experience. He had 20 minutes of glorious music. [But] they counted for nothing because he was left with a memory; the memory was ruined, and the memory was all he got to keep.”

Kahneman says what this reveals is we really have two selves: an experiencing self that lives in and knows the present, and a remembering self that dictates what experiences will ultimately shape our life story.

He cites another study done in the 1960s looking at two groups of patients having a medical procedure. Although it’s apparent from the taped recordings made at the time that Group 1 suffered more during the actual procedure, Group 2’s memories of the event were far worse. Why? “Because a very critical part of the story is how it ends,” says Kahneman. “And the one that is worse is the one where the pain was at its peak at the every end.”

What defines or makes a story memorable, even a story we’ve invented? Not surprisingly, the all-important criteria are “changes, significant moments and endings”, says Kahneman who also notes that our remembering self doesn’t just remember and tell certain stories, it actually makes decisions in that “we don’t choose between experiences, we choose between memories of experiences.” Holiday destinations are a case in point. It just may be that we prefer to vacation by the sea because we have fond memories of past trips to the beach.


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  1. Beth heyn says:

    Wow, this makes sense. I guess your memory depends on what you focus on. For instance, my husband had terrible memories of being in hospital for cancer treatment, while mine are full of all the wonderful docs, nurses and many people who helped him to beat cancer. My memories are full of hope, his were of the pain and fear. I remember the 2 miracles of time we git with him. This is an extreme example, for sure. But I think it shows how your focus affects your happiness. Even though I knew I was losing my husband slowly, I was happy because I focused on the good things: the joy all around waiting to be discovered.

  2. Carmel Ross says:

    This is a very accurate and powerful insight. We easily forget (if we ever really had noticed) that there are at least two kinds of reality – the objective events that are happening in the world around us all the time; and the perceptions we bring with us as we experience that reality. I think it’s not just the case that we inadvertently “choose” what we will remember, but at an earlier point, we “choose” what we will attend to in the experience itself. It can help us to improve our objectivity if we occasionally stop and take stock of how we are interpreting (and therefore remembering) the world around us and the experiences we have in it. To a very real extent, happiness is about choosing to see and experience goodness, joy, positive attitudes, generosity, etc., around us. This doesn’t mean being bling to what is ugly or evil, just to get a right perspective that nourishes us and probably nourishes those we encounter if we make good choices about how we “see” and “remember” life.

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