The Misconception: You are one person, and your happiness is based on being content with your life.
The Truth: You are multiple selves, and happiness is based on satisfying all of them.
Have you ever been so sick you spent a week on the couch?
What do you remember from that period of time?
Mostly nothing, right?
All throughout your life great big patches of experience are tossed aside and forgotten. You turn around sometimes and think, “It’s March already!?” or “I’ve been working here for five years!?”
To understand the difference between experience and memory, you first need to understand a little bit about self.
Your sense of self is just that – a sense. A figment.
The person you imagine yourself is really just a narrative, a story. You tell this story to yourself and to others differently depending on the situation, and the story changes over time.
For now, it is useful to imagine there are two selves active at any given time in your head – the current self, and the remembering self.
The current self is the one experiencing life in real-time. It is the person you are in the three or so seconds your sensory memory lasts, and the 30 or so seconds after that in which your short-term memory is juggling all your senses and thoughts.
You taste the ice cream and it is good. Then, you remember you tasted the ice cream. Then, in five years, you have no memory of tasting it at all. Sometimes, rarely, something else happens which prompts you to move the memory into long-term storage.
Think back now to all the times you have tasted ice cream. How many true memories do you have which aren’t just dreamlike wisps? How many stories can you tell about tasting ice cream?
The remembering self is made up of all those memories which have passed into long-term storage.
When you replay your life in your mind, you can’t go back to all the things you have ever experienced. You can only go through all the things which went from experience, to short-term memory, to long-term memory.
So, going to get ice cream is not about building awesome memories. It’s about being happy for a few minutes. It’s about gratification. The happiness derived from such an experience is fleeting.
The psychologist Daniel Kahneman has much to say on this topic.
He says the self which makes decisions in your life is usually the remembering one. It drags your current self around in pursuit of new memories, anticipating them based on old memories.
The current self has little control over your future. It can only control a few actions like moving your hand away from a hot stove or putting one foot in front of the other. Occasionally, it prompts you to eat cheeseburgers, or watch a horror movie, or play a video game.
The current self is happy experiencing things. It likes to be in the flow.
It is the remembering self which has made all the big decisions. It is happy when you can sit back and reflect on your life up to this point and feel content. It is happy when you tell people stories about the things you have seen and done.
Kahneman proposes this thought experiment:
Imagine you are preparing to go on a two-week vacation. At the end of this vacation, you will drink a potion which will delete all the memories from those two-weeks.
How will this affect your decision? Knowing you won’t remember any of it, what will you spend your time doing during those two weeks?
That weird feeling you are having thinking about this is the conflict between your experiencing self and your remembering self.
The experiencing self can easily choose what to do. Sex, skiing, restaurants, concerts, parties – all of these things are about being happy during the event.
The remembering self is not so sure. It would rather go to Ireland and look at castles or drive from New York to Los Angeles just to see what happens.
It turns out, based on his research, there are two channels through which you decide whether or not you are happy.
The current self is happy when experiencing nice things. The remembering self is happy when you look back on your life and pull up plenty of positive memories.
As Kahneman points out. A two-week vacation may only yield a handful of life-long memories. You will pull those memories out every once and a while and use them to be happy. There is a serious imbalance between the time you spend creating these memories and time you spend enjoying them later.
The current self doesn’t like sitting in a cubicle. It feels caged. It could be doing something fun.
The remembering self doesn’t like not having enough money to build new memories, so it is willing to grind away and delay gratification.
“Happiness is something you achieve, a constant thing. A constantly turning over thing, like a small plant that has flowers constantly blooming and dying on the same stem. It’s not like you achieve happiness this one time and it just stays with you forever. You don’t bake a cake because a cake makes you happy, you don’t bake that one cake because you baked this cake or bought that car you wanted to get. You’ve always wanted this car, you got the car, now you’re happy forever…no.”
– Maynard Keenan
Life for you and many others is full of conflict between these two selves over how best to be happy.
Kahneman’s research suggests that happiness can’t be all one or all the other. You have to be happy in the flow of time while simultaneously creating memories you can look back on later.
To be happy now and content later, you can’t only be focused on reaching goals, because once you reach them, the experience ends.
To truly be happy, you must satisfy both of your selves.
Go get the ice cream, but do so in a way which is meaningful, a way which creates a long-term memory.
Grind away to have money for later, but do so in a way which generates happiness as you work.
If you live for the moment, for pure gratification, the moment is all you will ever have. You won’t be able to sit in a rocking chair and tell stories.
But, at the same time, if you think happiness comes at the end of a process, as some achievement or status or possession, you will be miserable both before and after the pursuit.