Jam Tomorrow ?

How happy are you right now ?

How happy were you last year ?

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist, thinks these are very different questions – that our sense of happiness ‘in the moment’, is something very different from our memory of happiness.

In his fascinating TED talk he argues that what we experience as the present, is only about three seconds long, beyond which almost all the moments we’ve experienced are simply lost forever, with only very few finding their way into our memory.

But these remembered moments disproportionately affect our choices and actions.

Imagine that after your next holiday all your photos were to be destroyed, and your entire memory of the trip were to be erased. You would have no memory of happiness afterwards – only the actual experience of happiness for the duration of the trip. Would you choose the same holiday ?

We use the word happiness is used to mean two very different things: how happy do we feel right now, and how satisfied do we feel about our life overall. Recent efforts to distinguish between these two meanings in surveys, have found something interesting. Our sense of life satisfaction, is significantly affected by our goals, achievements and money. But our sense of happiness in the present moment is largely dominated by spending time with people that we like – our family and friends.

These two desires often seem to be pulling us in different directions. Sometimes swapping more happiness now for less life satisfaction later – such as overeating our favourite foods, and sometimes swapping less happiness now for more life satisfaction later – such as working long hours in jobs we don’t much like to earn more money.

Of course, it’s not that one type of happiness is somehow more worthy or important than the other – living only for the pleasure of the present moment will clearly not bring us any better results than never feeling satisfied and constantly striving for more. Most of us would want to find a balance between them both in our lives.

But I have a sense that for many of us in the West, being happier in the here and now might be very welcome. Depression is one of the most commonly diagnosed conditions by general practitioners in much of the Western World and living more in the present may help, as it will tend to connect us more to reality, reduce our stress, improve our concentration and give us more clarity of vision.

Many philosophers and religious teachers have advocated the importance of being present to our mental well-being, suggesting that we shouldn’t think of happiness only as something to be relentlessly pursued or delayed. If we think that we’ll be happy in the future, when we’ve achieved a certain something, or done something, or have something . . . then we’re likely to be disappointed. We have to find happiness in the present moment.

Leo Babauta, the author of Zen Habits, one of the most visited blogs on the internet, puts being present at the top of his list of How to be Happy.

The Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote:

“The unhappy person is one who has his ideal, the content of his life, the fullness of his consciousness the essence of his being, in some manner outside of himself. He is always absent, never present to himself. But it is evident that it is possible to be absent from one’s self either in the past or in the future. This, then, at once circumscribes the entire territory of the unhappy consciousness.”

I imagine it’s just a coincidence that Denmark is often listed as ‘the Happiest Country on Earth’ !

As a father of two, I’ve noticed that children tend to live mostly in the present, with few anxieties about the future or regrets about the past – I think my children have a lot to teach me.

Photo by Snowpea and Bokchoi


  1. Gareth Richards says:

    I’m reminded of an ancient discussion between Solon the Athenian and Croesus on who is the happiest man on earth. Solon first suggest that Tellos the Athenian is the happiest man:

    And he said: “Tellos, in the first place, living while his native State was prosperous, had sons fair and good and saw from all of them children begotten and living to grow up; and secondly he had what with us is accounted wealth, and after his life a most glorious end: for when a battle was fought by the Athenians at Eleusis against the neighbouring people, he brought up supports and routed the foe and there died by a most fair death; and the Athenians buried him publicly where he fell, and honoured him greatly.”

    Croesus thought he may still get second place but Solon awarded it to:

    “Cleobis and Biton: for these, who were of Argos by race, possessed a sufficiency of wealth and, in addition to this, strength of body such as I shall tell. Both equally had won prizes in the games, and moreover the following tale is told of them:—There was a feast of Hera among the Argives and it was by all means necessary that their mother should be borne in a car to the temple. But since their oxen were not brought up in time from the field, the young men, barred from all else by lack of time, submitted themselves to the yoke and drew the wain, their mother being borne by them upon it; and so they brought it on for five-and-forty furlongs, 28 and came to the temple. Then after they had done this and had been seen by the assembled crowd, there came to their life a most excellent ending; and in this the deity declared that it was better for man to die than to continue to live. For the Argive men were standing round and extolling the strength 29 of the young men, while the Argive women were extolling the mother to whose lot it had fallen to have such sons; and the mother being exceedingly rejoiced both by the deed itself and by the report made of it, took her stand in front of the image of the goddess and prayed that she would give to Cleobis and Biton her sons, who had honoured her 30 greatly, that gift which is best for man to receive: and after this prayer, when they had sacrificed and feasted, the young men lay down to sleep within the temple itself, and never rose again, but were held bound in this last end. 31 And the Argives made statues in the likeness of them and dedicated them as offerings at Delphi, thinking that they had proved themselves most excellent.”

    Are you beginning to spot a pattern here? Solon Declares to Croesus:

    “Croesus, thou art inquiring about human fortunes of one who well knows that the Deity is altogether envious and apt to disturb our lot. For in the course of long time a man may see many things which he would not desire to see, and suffer also many things which he would not desire to suffer. The limit of life for a man I lay down at seventy years: and these seventy years give twenty-five thousand and two hundred days, not reckoning for any intercalated month. Then if every other one of these years shall be made longer by one month, that the seasons may be caused to come round at the due time of the year, the intercalated months will be in number five-and-thirty besides the seventy years; and of these months the days will be one thousand and fifty. Of all these days, being in number twenty-six thousand two hundred and fifty, which go to the seventy years, one day produces nothing at all which resembles what another brings with it. Thus then, O Croesus, man is altogether a creature of accident. As for thee, I perceive that thou art both great in wealth and king of many men, but that of which thou didst ask me I cannot call thee yet, until I learn that thou hast brought thy life to a fair ending: for the very rich man is not at all to be accounted more happy than he who has but his subsistence from day to day, unless also the fortune go with him of ending his life well in possession of all things fair. For many very wealthy men are not happy, 32 while many who have but a moderate living are fortunate; and in truth the very rich man who is not happy has two advantages only as compared with the poor man who is fortunate, whereas this latter has many as compared with the rich man who is not happy. The rich man is able better to fulfil his desire, and also to endure a great calamity if it fall upon him; whereas the other has advantage over him in these things which follow:—he is not indeed able equally with the rich man to endure a calamity or to fulfil his desire, but these his good fortune keeps away from him, while he is sound of limb, 34 free from disease, untouched by suffering, the father of fair children and himself of comely form; and if in addition to this he shall end his life well, he is worthy to be called that which thou seekest, namely a happy man; but before he comes to his end it is well to hold back and not to call him yet happy but only fortunate. Now to possess all these things together is impossible for one who is mere man, just as no single land suffices to supply all tings for itself, but one thing it has and another it lacks, and the land that has the greatest number of things is the best: so also in the case of a man, no single person is complete in himself, for one thing he has and another he lacks; but whosoever of men continues to the end in possession of the greatest number of these things and then has a gracious ending of his life, he is by me accounted worthy, O king, to receive this name. But we must of every thing examine the end and how it will turn out at the last, for to many God shows but a glimpse of happiness and then plucks them up by the roots and overturns them.”

    In other words who can declare who is happy until they are dead, I won’t spoil the rest of the story you’ll have to read the rest of Herodotus to find out what happens to Croesus. So even 2500 years ago some smart alec was trying to tell you how to be happy, now doesn’t that depress you.

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