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Remembering, Experiencing, and the History of Happiness

What we learn from this talk is that there are two different ways of thinking about happiness. The father of behavioural economics and Nobel Prize in Economics winner, Daniel Kahneman, explains this dichotomy well.

Before explaining what the Experiencing and Remembering Selves are, it is worth quickly reviewing the history of happiness. It would not be merely for our own benefit, but perhaps also to the benefit of others.

First, it is possible to move by standing still, it is possible to become happier by merely re-evaluating your own beliefs about happiness. It is not sustainable over the long-run, because things need to be done. But this only gives us more reason to try to understand what happiness really is!

If only a portion of the picture of happiness is visible to your mind, then you have no idea if the concept you hold is the most accurate concept. You could be striving towards goals that ultimately make you unhappy, you could be teaching others the wrong values. In other words, you may be engaging in both deception and self-deception.

We take it for granted that we know what happiness is, but there are many different definitions most of them are in conflict. We have no unified definition of happiness, and yet it is what we all claim to be after – it is what many people (if not most) believe to be the purpose of life.

You will soon notice that your ideas converge to some definitions of happiness more than others. If you’re honest with yourself, if you assess your past behavior, and your beliefs in a fair and reasonable way, you may even find a mismatch between what you are doing, and what you believe. You may believe in the pursuit of happiness, but you may not be living in a way that will moves you forward in that pursuit.

In summary, the ambiguity of the idea of happiness and the mismatch between your own beliefs and actions are good reasons to try to better understand what happiness is, and how you can achieve it.

A History of Happiness

Self-actualization, the fulfilment of one’s highest potential, ought to be the goal of every individual. At least that’s what the humanist psychologists Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers believed. There are parallels between this idea and ancient Greek ideas about happiness, such as Eudaimonia.

Self-actualization is about fulfilling one’s highest potential. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, after the individual has figured out life’s basics: food, shelter, security, social life, he ought to proceed (if he would like to fulfil his highest potential) to attaining knowledge, earning recognition for his competence in his chosen domain, and developing an aesthetic sense for beauty, order, and symmetry.

This is very similar to the Greek concept of Eudemonia, which refers to the good life or the happy life – but it is not equivalent to the modern definition of happiness, which just refers to a pleasant state of mind. Eudaimonia describes the things which would make us happy if we knew of them, but it is not necessarily true that we do know of them. Eudemonia is not merely subjective.

If a father thinks he is loved by his children, but he is not, then the father is not Eudemonic. It isn’t his subjective opinion that matters, but rather what is objectively true. The children either loved or didn’t love their father. That is, even if everyone in society (including the father) falsely assumed that the children loved their father, then the father was no Eudemonic. A person who is Eudemonic lived a truly virtuous life, and this is largely judged by the society in which he lives in. Was he virtuous, just, honest, or was he sadistic, deceptive, and destructive?

If you feel this definition is ambiguous, you needn’t worry, since Eudemonia meant different things to the Greek philosophers – even they could not agree. Plato thought that you needed justice to achieve Eudaimonia, that Eudaimonia consisted of happiness and justice, but that justice was more important. According to Socrates, it is better to have a pure soul and no wealth, rather than have wealth, pleasure, and a poor soul. Epicurus thought that virtues like justice were instrumental means to one central end: pleasure – but he believed in maximizing one’s long-term pleasure, not merely the engagement in immediate pleasure (in case you were thinking about labeling yourself as Epicurean).

The Stoics distrusted pleasure, they believed that Eudemonia can be achieved through a life of self-restraint, simplicity, and self-discipline. External sources of happiness such as wealth and health were not important to the Stoics. And this idea was shared by the Cynics such as Diogenes. There is a famous story that describes a moment when Alexander the Great went to visit Diogenes of Sinope, and promised to grant him whatever wish the philosopher desired, to which Diogenes replied, “Stand out of my light.”

The politicians and commanders that surrounded Alexander laughed in unison, Alexander was impressed with Diogenes’ answer, and told his comrades, “If I was not Alexander, I would want to be Diogenes.” To which, the latter replied, “If I was not Diogenes, I would want to be Diogenes too.”

The Remembering Self vs the Experiencing Self

Going back to Kahneman, It is important to understand that he is not proposing to have solved the problem of happiness – which from the time of the Greeks, has continued to haunt civilization, but rather to become disillusioned by the uni-dimensional way happiness is currently being discussed. Indeed, the number of books that purport to teach their readers how to truly be happy is astounding. It isn’t that none of these books are useful for anything, they certainly do advance some notion of happiness, but most of them ignore an important part of the picture, and could be very misleading. One example is Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh or Osho.

Osho’s self-help books taught people to forget about their values, and to pursue a life of unbridled pleasure. He was well-read, spoke with a sharp tongue that masterfully carved out profound sounding sentences which managed to convert many people all over the world to his brand of philosophy. So powerful were his ideas and charisma that many families were torn apart after being exposed to his teachings, and many individuals destroyed their own lives to pursue the conception of happiness that Osho believed in.

This isn’t to say that Osho actively tried to deceive his followers, he may have truly believed in the ideas he preached. There’s an episode in Seinfeld where George tells Jerry, “Remember Jerry, it’s not a lie, if you believe it.”

Further, I think people tend to gravitate towards ideas they already agree with. Those who embraced the philosophy Osho was espousing may have been convinced beforehand but were not brave or articulate enough to act on their beliefs. Osho may have been a trigger rather than the cause. Regardless, the human capacity for being led astray by bad ideas, whether self-generated, or externally imbued, is well-documented, and so it is important to never subscribe to any philosophy, whether it is Stoicism (which has achieved recent popularity, or any other fad philosophy, but rather, to be aware of the various ways in which people have chosen to live, and to explore modes of living that are harmonious with your own nature.

Kahneman divides the human mind into two systems in his book Thinking: Fast and Slow. System 1 is the reactive, automatic part of your brain that makes fast calculations, and knows instantly what two plus two is equal to. System 2 is the slower, methodical, deliberate part of your brain, it comes online when asked to solve a much more complicated maths problem that you don’t automatically know the answer to.

This brings us to another dichotomy that is relevant to the subject of happiness, and it is the disparity between two different agents within us that experience life differently and have conflicting ideas of what happiness is.

The Experiencing Self is the first agent. Imagine listening to your favorite music for an hour before hearing a loud screech (you own a record player) at the end. You instantly are turned off and feel your entire experience has been ruined. This is a story that was told to Kahneman and what it shows is that a part of, the Experiencing Self, was having a wonderful time appreciating the music, while the Remembering Self, the part of you that will store the memory of this event, has an entirely different interpretation. The Remembering Self remembers this as a negative experience, because of the loud screech in the end despite the beautiful experience that preceded it.

Kahneman used to believe that the Experiencing Self was all that mattered but came to realize that it was the Remembering Self instead that people built their lives around. If you have a bad experience, but it ended well, you will look back fondly at this experience, and will likely do it again. However, a good experience that ends badly will be avoided in the future.

Think of a vacation – to the Experiencing Self, the longer the vacation, the better. To the Remembering Self, a two-week vacation is not much different from a one-week vacation given that you have not done many different things.

When you examine your own life, think of which Self you give more priority to. Think of which definition of happiness you subscribe to.

Are you living in a way where pleasure takes precedence over achievement, do you value experience or memory more? Are you living well, are you Eudemonic? Perhaps you are more Stoic, perhaps you think of pleasure as trifling matter, and are too high-minded and well-disciplined to think about base amusements?

Or maybe you are an Epicurean, and like Epicurus, you acknowledge pleasure as a good-in-itself, and all of your actions are motivated by the need to experience pleasure, whether in the short-term or in the long-term?

Maybe you are more Nietzschean, as opposed to Socratic, maybe you believe that justice and conflict are not fit for men with great powers for it only limits them as the story of the magical ring of Gyges suggests.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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