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Happiness Experienced Versus Remembered

A friend of mine sent me a link to a lecture given by a Noble-prizing winning economist. The topic is happiness — yes, I’ve been into this topic on-and-off during my sabbatical. He talks about two different ways to look at happiness. When most people talk about being happy, or unhappy, they tend to be unclear about which kind of happiness they’re referring to.

Briefly, this guy talks about happiness in how it’s experienced, versus how it’s remembered. It’s the difference between asking “are you happy right now, at this moment?” or “have you had a happy life?” If you dive into this a little bit, you’ll realize that these are very different things, and they more often than not don’t correlate with one another.

It was said that anyone who’s ever lived in the Sahara for sometime invariably remember the experience as the best in their lives. I cannot imagine that living in terrible heat, dryness, sand storms brings happiness in the present tense. But I also believe that people who experience it will in fact remember it fondly. Conversely, we can all think of things we did that made us happy there and then, but our memory of that experience is painful. And most the happiness or misery experienced don’t register at all in our memories. (Although I think our experiences, even if not remembered consciously, do change who we are.)

Picking up where this lectures leaves off, it seems to me that our lives exist in the mingling of these two streams. Many of our core values, when examined deeply, reflect which of these two types of happiness we value more. The stoic, the industrious, the religious, tend to value memory. They toil and struggle in order to be satisfied looking back at what was accomplished. Religion makes a difference, because if you believe in afterlife, you probably also believe that you’ll take your memories with you for eternity. That makes memory far more important. An atheist would believe that momentary happiness, even if it leaves no imprint, should count for something because memories are ultimately ephemeral too.

You can watch the video here.

15 Comments
  1. Rosa #

    Something I find interesting about the memory of experiences in contrast to living the experience is that it is there since childhood. I find my kids talking with total rapture about things they did not seem to enjoy that much at the time, so may be memory just cleans experiences and leaves them at their best.

    May 30, 2012
    • Yes, memory definitely cleanses. Seems that we’re programmed to clear out the bad. Sometimes remember incorrectly, in complete honesty, to make ourselves feel better. I heard a study about WWI veterans. As they get older, more and more people state that they never fired a shot at an enemy.

      June 17, 2012
  2. Great post, Winston. It’s a neat topic. I think what you described are two ‘forms’ of happiness – both equally important and not mutually exclusive. I think both are important to people. It’s just the temporal scale that’s different. I very much focus on living in the moment. I often jokingly describe myself as a ‘super feeler’ because I notice everything – how vibrant the green grass is. The smell of spruce tree resin on a hot day in the forest. I love those things. They make me happy in the present. Sharing a good laugh with a friend is also something that makes me happy. And yet, an equally important part of my life is my happy memories of times gone by. My childhood memories of my Mum, grandmother and great aunt – who were the most important people in my life – memories of day to day life during childhood, days spent at our cottage – these are all things that invoke a really warm and wonderful feeling when I recall them. I think of the often. I don’t think of myself as living in the past because I focus on these a lot. But they are memories that bring happiness. They are important to me and have helped shape who I am today.

    Interestingly, some of my fondest memories of my adulthood (so far) are of things that challenged me the most. I look back on those experiences and recall that they were some of the biggest challenges of my life. I enjoyed the experiences when they happened, although some were really difficult, both physically and mentally. And yet I look back on them with a smile.

    I wonder, when it comes to memories, if they are like people’s attitudes to life. Some see the glass as half full. Some see it as half empty. Are past memories the same? Some focus on the good memories while others dwell on a difficult past? I know somehow who has let the past haunt them and spoil their ‘present’, simply because they just could not overcome the difficult past and move on. When I recall the past, I’m hard pressed to remember any truly bad or disturbing memories. I feel like my brain has subconsciously filtered all of that out and tucked it away somewhere. Instead, when I recall the past, nearly all of it is as happy memories that give me a warm feeling when I recall them. They put a smile on my face.

    The only memories I struggle with now are those of losing my Mum. She was my best friend and soulmate. We were two peas on a pod. She passed away a year and a half ago and I’m still broken-hearted. I spent nearly every day of her 15 month illness with her. Despite her being in hospital or a nursing home for that time, she and I had a blast at times. We made lemonaide out of lemons. Despite the horrible circumstances, together we were good at finding things to laugh about – funny, goofy things. We lived in the moment, made happiness in difficult times, and I cerish those memories. I also spent my Mum’s final 72 hours with her, holding her hand until she took final breath. That was THE most diffiucult thing i’ve ever done. They are difficult memories. They bring tears to my eyes. And yet, I don’t want to forget them, despite how painful they are. I’m not sure why. I also have ‘flashbacks’ to my Mum’s two stints on life support and months in ICU. There are painful memories there that I’m not yet ready to recall and so when they do surface, I push them away. At least for now. Maybe in time, I won’t. Instead I try to remember as many happy memories of my Mum as I can – from early childhood til recent.

    Sorry for such a long comment,but your post really struck a chord with me. It’s something I’ve reflected on a lot, for a variety of reasons. Thanks for posting about it.

    May 31, 2012
    • Thanks so much for sharing your experience and your thoughts. I guess what you describe is what I meant by “life is the mingling of experience and memory.” Your memory can create many happy, present moments, while some happy or unhappy moments can form enduring memories.
      I find it helpful to think about life in these terms because to me, many people, including myself sometimes, don’t care much about the present and care only about what they can do to form good memories for the future. For me, this line of thinking has brought about some sensible balance between the two.

      June 17, 2012
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