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.