Memory VS. Experience
Happiness is Relative
When we talk about being happy, what do we really mean? We
know that happiness comes from a variety of sources, depending
upon a person's point of view. But according to APS Fellow
Daniel Kahneman, people don't know how happy they are because
happiness is so relative. Kahneman, a professor of psychology
and public affairs at Princeton University, discussed this and
related research findings in a lecture entitled "Memory vs.
Experience" as part of the Behavioral and Social Sciences
Lecture Series at the National Institutes of Health.
Take, for instance, a study Kahneman conducted in 1998 with
his colleague David Schkade, from the University of Texas at
Austin. The two researchers asked 2,000 undergraduate students
in California and the Midwest to rate their life satisfaction.
The result, said Kahneman, was that there was no difference
between the students' ratings in the two regions, even though
both groups of students predicted Californians would be
The students correctly assumed that Californians would be
more satisfied with their climate than Midwesterners, said
Kahneman, but failed to realize that the weather does not
affect people's overall evaluations of their lives.
The study, he said, illustrates that people cannot imagine
what effect adaptation to their circumstances will have on
addition to his extensive research into happiness, Kahneman is
also widely known for his research on human judgment and
decision-making. He has received several awards including the
APS William James Fellow Award, the Warren Medal of the
Society of Experimental Psychologists, the Hilgard Award for
Career Contributions to General Psychology, and the APA
Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award.
One of Kahneman's main areas of interest has been hedonic
psychology, defined as the study of pleasure and pain,
happiness and misery, both as they are experienced in the
present and as they are remembered later. Kahneman has been
attempting to revive Jeremy Bentham's notion of utility, which
is that the hedonic experiences of pleasure and pain govern
our lives and tell us both what we ought to do and determine
what we actually do. The modern view of utility in
decision-making research is more singular, focusing on the
influence of utility in making choices. Kahneman's concept -
which he calls "experienced utility" - is closer to Bentham's
broader concept combining both decision-making and
During the lecture, Kahneman asserted that that his own
research indicates that experienced utility could be measured.
"The quality of measurement may eventually be good enough to
attain measures of well-being and of misery that could serve
the needs of policy," he said.
For example, the Princeton professor said it would be
useful to measure the quality of life in various health states
by measuring what it's actually like to be, for example,
visually impaired or to be ill, rather than by having healthy
people assign a value to that state, which in fact reflected
how afraid they are of having that particular condition. "I'm
suggesting that at least in principle there really exists
serious problems with QALYs, quality-adjusted
life years1," Kahneman. "We
could eventually see a future in which measures of experienced
utility would replace this measure."
Kahneman's research also draws on research
in "affective forecasting," a label coined by researcher
Daniel Gilbert which refers to how and how well people predict
their emotional reactions to future events. Kahneman terms his
concept "predictive utility."
While serving as a psychology professor at University of
California, Berkeley, a few years ago, Kahneman and his
collaborator Jackie Snell conducted an experiment in which he
paid participants to eat their favorite ice cream flavor while
listening to music over the course of 7 days. The participants
were asked to predict how they would rate their experience the
next day and how they would rate their experience at the end
of the experiment.
The task, Kahneman said, proved to be extremely difficult.
Some participants got addicted to the ice cream, while others
tired of it, but the individuals showed no ability to predict
their own future responses. "People are just not good at
guessing how their tastes in particular will change over a
period of time," he explained.
Kahneman believes that experiments such as this have a
crucial implication for medical decision-making. If people
cannot predict how their own tastes will change, he said, a
serious question arises about the adequacy of informed consent
when making medical decisions.
people underestimate is adaptation, Kahneman said. In a study
conducted by a Princeton undergraduate under Kahneman's
supervision, participants were asked to evaluate the
percentage of time paraplegics and lottery winners would be in
a good, neutral or bad mood one month and one year after their
defining event. Kahneman added a variable omitted by prior
researchers on this exact issue, which is whether the
participants personally knew any paraplegics or lottery
"If you know a paraplegic personally, then you know it's
very bad one month after the accident and it's substantially
less bad one year after the accident, so there's a
considerable amount of adaptation," he said. "But people who
don't know a paraplegic or a lottery winner simply do not
discriminate the one month from the one year. They do not
Unless they know an affected individual, Kahneman said,
people imagine the transition to the condition or state, not
the actual state itself. In essence, there is confusion
between being and becoming, which Kahneman said is a general
conclusion Kahneman has drawn from his studies is that the
duration of an experience plays essentially no role when
evaluating how well it becomes etched in our memories.
Kahneman believes the most direct way to evaluate
experienced utility is to ask people how they feel at a
certain moment, a notion he calls "moment utility." This is
the concept, Kahneman said, Bentham really had in mind. But
because researchers are more interested in extended outcomes,
more often the question they ask is memory-based: "How was
it?" Kahneman said this is a different question that reflects
the individual's global evaluation of an entire episode in the
past and it may not be a direct assessment of the individual's
real-time state. This "remembered utility," said Kahneman, is
not a very good guide when predicting outcomes. The "total
utility" of a state is derived from the moment-based approach
of measuring the real time pleasure or pain experienced by the
The contrast between remembered and total utility brings up
the issue of the two different ways to view experiences, the
two selves, Kahneman said. The experiencing self does all the
living by going through a succession of moments while the
remembering self is the one that gets to keep the
When people make decisions, the remembering self is in
control, Kahneman explained. "We make our decisions in terms
of our memories and basically, we maximize remembered utility,
not the actual total utility," he said. "The only thing we can
learn to maximize through personal experience is remembered
These issues all have an effect on a
person's well-being, which most often is measured by
satisfaction with life.
Kahneman said another way of determining well-being is to
measure affect, the hedonic quality of experiences, which he
said should be measured independently of satisfaction. He put
the concept into practice during a recently-completed study
conducted on 1000 women in Texas. The participants were asked
to characterize moment utility for different points of time
during a day. Kahneman and his colleagues hope to generate
information about the amount of time spent on each daily
activity as well as the factors that characterize each
While believing people live in the pursuit of satisfaction,
Kahneman predicts that they'll find stronger correlations of
happiness with affect than with satisfaction in the study.
Though he realizes that individuals have little control
over their affective dispositions, Kahneman said people do
control the variable that can make them happier - allocation
of their time.
"One way to improve life is simply by tilting the balance
toward more affectively good activities, such as spending more
time with friends or reducing commuting time," he said.
1 QALY is a widely-used
statistical measurement that attempts to take into account the
impact of disease and treatment on daily happiness,
self-image, and physical comfort. These are used in
determining the effectiveness of health interventions and in
making decisions about courses of treatment, as well as many
other individual and public policy decisions.