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Memory: Key to Happiness

Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel-prize-winning behavioral economist from Princeton University who has uncovered what I would term “the vacation effect.” While on holiday, we may be frustrated by airline delays, surly waiters, and disappointing B&Bs, but when the experience is over and we look back, what do we remember? “Oh, we had a wonderful time in Europe”….

Kahneman believes that the memory of the experience is the most important determinant of how we assess happiness….

In fact, Kahneman’s work may hold the answer to my original questions. He has identified two distinct “selves” when it comes to happiness. One he calls “the experiential self.” This is the part of our minds that experiences events as they happen. The example he uses is someone listening to a vinyl record of a beautiful symphony. The record goes on for 20 minutes, the listener absorbing it all with eyes blissfully closed. Then the needle suddenly skips, making a horrendous screeching sound, at the very end of the record. Our listener sits up, disgruntled. “Well, that just ruined the whole thing for me!” In fact, the scratch did not ruin the experience of the first 20 minutes of listening to the record, but it ruined the memory of listening to it — and that is what the brain records and retains of the experience itself.

This differentiation between the experiential self and the memory self is critical because it highlights what economists, behaviorists, and psychologists have discovered is a major schism in our perception of happiness: we can feel unhappy in how we experience our lives but we can, at the same time, feel completely satisfied thinking about our lives. Because how we remember our lives trumps how we experience them.

This, in fact, also explains one of the great secrets of modern-day anesthesia. Doctors can now administer rapidly acting intravenous amnestic agents — physicians jokingly refer to one medication that has a slightly whitish color in solution as “milk of amnesia” — that inhibit the brain’s ability to encode memories. The amnestic brings out the enormous schism between experience and recollection. How much pain has a patient experienced if he or she can’t remember screaming in agony? In both a terrifying and gratifying way, the answer is, effectively, none. By its nature, pain awkwardly resembles crime, in the sense that without a physical repository — without being memorialized by the brain as evidence — it no longer exists, even if it really happened.

"7 Ways to Make Happiness Last"
- Allan Hamilton, Daily Good: News That Inspires website, January 22, 2013.