Archive | October, 2013

Emotional happiness and life satisfaction

9 Oct

         Shamefully, I hadn’t heard of Daniel Kahneman until he featured on Desert Island Discs during the summer (BBC Radio 4, August 16). He’s an Israeli-American psychologist who specialises in behavioural economics, and in 2002 his work on prospect theory won him a Nobel Prize.  Well-being, or hedonic psychology, has been an important area of research for him in recent years. In other words, he’s interested in what most of us still refer to as happiness.

          Kahneman is a likeable and extremely lucid presenter of ideas, and I’d love to hear more from him. In the radio programme he made a distinction between emotional happiness – how we feel about life when we’re actually living it, and life-satisfaction – how we feel about our lives when we stop and think about them.

          Life-satisfaction, Kahneman explained, is linked to the goals which we set ourselves at an early stage in life. These generally remain the measure of how we rate our life satisfaction as we get older. For example, if when we’re young we decide we want a lot of money, and later on we manage to get it, then we’re satisfied. If on the other hand we say we don’t want a lot of money, then generally speaking we don’t regret this. At the end of our lives we don’t say to ourselves, ‘Oh, I made a big mistake there – I’d have been much happier if I’d been richer.’

          So it seems that there aren’t any absolutes. Money will make you happy if that’s what you want. It won’t make you happy if you never really wanted it in the first place. Simplistic pronouncements about the folly of pursuing wealth – the kind of thing I’m prone to myself – just aren’t good enough if we’re trying to provide a basis for social and moral regulation. Social justice requires us – in my view – to redistribute wealth away from those who have a lot more than enough. But it would be stupid to pretend that most people who have money are going to be happy to go along with this. We have to deal with the fact that they won’t.

          Returning to Kahneman and the issue of life satisfaction, obviously if we fall far short of our personal goals we’re not going to be as satisfied with our lives as we might have been. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t be happy. Kahneman made an interesting point about how our awareness of memory has a role to play in determining our hedonic experiences. Holidays, he said, are often treated as anticipated memories. When you ask people whether, if they were able to have a really enjoyable holiday but without any future memory of it, they would still want to go, the majority say that they wouldn’t. The memories form a really large part of their enjoyment. I think I have to admit that the same applies to me. (Actually in my case the crucial question would be, ‘Would you still want to go on holiday if you weren’t able to tell people about it when you got home?’ But in some ways that might amount to much the same thing – a holiday for a lot of us is an experience that we relish most of all when it’s over.) Kahneman’s advice in response to these attitudes? ‘We need to think more about living and less about remembering our lives.’ I take this as meaning that we ought to focus a bit more on emotional happiness, and less on looking back on our activities and contemplating our success in achieving our various goals.        

          A few other things I gleaned from the programme:

  • ·         Older people often form the happiest group in any society.
  • ·         The people who are most depressed  by their failure to accomplish their early goals are those who wanted to win fame as performers – actors, singers, rock stars, and so on.
  • ·         There is a gene that determines our individual optimism and happiness.

          Is the last really true?

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