October 6, 2018
Why Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman Gave Up on Happiness
The cognitive psychologist spent years studying happiness, yet now he considers satisfaction and life satisfaction of greater importance to people.
What did I consider more important about my meeting with Nobel Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman? My enjoyment of the meeting, which was fascinating and inspirational – or the photo that shows me talking with one of the world’s most brilliant men? According to Kahneman, this is a complex question that has caused confusion in happiness studies for many years.
He came to the study of happiness through a circuitous route, as an outgrowth of research in which he sought to understand the connection between what we experience in real time – that is, the life we lead – and what we remember of these experiences (i.e., the narrative we carry with us and tell about our lives).
A Tel Aviv native and Professor Emeritus at Princeton, Kahneman, 84, is a cognitive psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 for research conducted jointly with Amos Tversky (who died in 1996). The two modeled a systematic, inbuilt set of cognitive biases and logical failures in our method of thinking that influences contexts, conclusions and decision-making. They then demonstrated how, as a result, we make decisions on the basis of erroneous assessments and intuitions that are inconsistent with either statistics or common sense.
The research and behavioral models derived from their studies had a significant effect on the economic sciences, forcing it to change its models – which had previously been based on the fundamental assumption of rational behavior. Kahneman’s insights created the field of behavioral economics: A field that seeks to evaluate the influence of irrational, impulsive human behavior.
In the 1990s, Kahneman studied another form of cognitive bias: That there is a discrepancy between our experiences as we experience them while they’re actually happening, and our memories of those same experiences.
The subject of his initial research was not sexy and quite distant from the happiness debate. The study documented, in real time, patients’ degree of suffering during a colonoscopy (it was a painful procedure at the time, unlike today).
It turned out there was no connection between the length of the procedure and level of pain a patient experienced and described at the time, and the extent of trauma he recalled afterward. The memory was based primarily on whether the pain increased or decreased toward the end of the procedure. The stronger the pain in the final stage of the procedure, the more traumatic it became in the patient’s memory – with no connection to the question of how much pain he actually experienced during it.
Positive experiences are processed similarly. In a 2010 lecture, Kahneman related the story of a man who told him about listening to a symphony he loved, “absolutely glorious music.” But at the end there was a “dreadful screeching sound” that, the man said, ruined the whole experience for him.
But as Kahneman pointed out, it hadn’t actually destroyed the experience, because the man enjoyed the music at the time. Rather, it ruined his memory of the experience, which is something completely different.
“We live and experience many moments, but most of them are not preserved,” Kahneman said. “They are lost forever. Our memory collects certain parts of what happened to us and processes them into a story. We make most of our decisions based on the story told by our memory.
“For example, a vacation – we don’t remember, or experience, the entire time we spent on vacation, but only the impressions preserved in our memory, the photographs and the documentation. Moreover, we usually choose the next vacation not as an experience but as a future memory. If prior to the decision about our next vacation we assume that at the end all the photos will be erased, and we’ll be given a drug that will also erase our memory, it’s quite possible that we’ll choose a different vacation from the one that we actually choose.”
A very vague concept
Kahneman’s studies of “What I experience” versus “What I remember” are what led him to get involved in the study of happiness.
“I put together a group of researchers, including an economist whom I viewed as both a partner in the group and its principal client,” he told me when we met earlier this year. “We wanted to figure out what factors affect happiness and to try to work to change conditions and policies accordingly. Economists have more influence on policy.
“The group developed a model known as DRM, or Day Reconstruction Method – a fairly successful method of reconstructing experiences throughout the day. It gives results similar to those of ‘What I experience’ and is easier to do.”
It turns out there are significant differences between the narrative that we remember and tell, and the feelings of day-to-day happiness we experience at the time – to the point that Kahneman believes the general term “happiness” is too vague and can’t be applied to both.
He views “happiness” as the feeling of enjoyment a person experiences here and now – for instance, two weeks of relaxation on the beach, or an enjoyable conversation with an interesting person. What is described as happiness in the “What I remember” is something Kahneman prefers to call – as he did more than once in his series of studies – “satisfaction” or “life satisfaction.”
“Life satisfaction is connected to a large degree to social yardsticks – achieving goals, meeting expectations,” he explained. “It’s based on comparisons with other people.
“For instance, with regard to money, life satisfaction rises in direct proportion to how much you have. In contrast, happiness is affected by money only when it’s lacking. Poverty can buy a lot of suffering, but above the level of income that satisfies basic needs, happiness, as I define it, doesn’t increase with wealth. The graph is surprisingly flat.
“Economist Angus Deaton, the Nobel Prize laureate for 2015, was also involved in these conclusions. Happiness in this sense depends, to a large extent, on genetics – on a natural ability to be happy. It’s also connected to a genetic disposition to optimism. They are apparently the same genes.