Friday, March 12, 2010

Friday TED Talk: Daniel Kahneman on "Happiness" as a Tricky Concept

Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in 2002 for his pathbreaking work in behavior analysis as applied to economical theories, and is one of the world's leading psychologists. In the talk below he shares the fruitful insights which come from the distinction between our "experiencing self" -- the part of us in the "here and now", who answers the doctor's question "How does that hurt when I press here?" -- and our "remembering self". The latter is the part of us that answers the lawyer's question "How did it hurt when you fell and twisted your knee?" The psychological "now" lasts only for about three seconds, and then it passes into memory.

Thus when we speak of how some bad event ruined a vacation that we took, it is not that we had a bad experience, but that we now carry a bad memory of that experience. Similarly, Dr. Kahneman points out, when we think about the future -- such as that trip to Paris you are taking next month -- what we are anticipating are the good memories we expect to have from that experience. This leads to what Dr. Kahneman calls "the tyranny of the remembering self -- you can think of the remembering self as dragging the experiencing self through experiences the latter does not need." And that insight has profound implications for how we study what we call "happiness," which means one thing to the experiencing self, and another thing entirely to the remembering self. How satisfied a person is with his life (i.e., how he looks back on his accomplishments and failures) does not tell you how well he is experiencing his life.

In other words, Dr. Kahneman finally explains the truth behind the old joke about the patient who asks his doctor: "If I give up tobacco, alcohol, fatty foods and desserts, will I live any longer?" And the doctor replies: "I can't promise that if you give up those things, you will live any longer. What I can promise you is that if you give up those things, it will seem longer."

This talk was delivered at the TED Conference in Long Beach earlier this year:

Here is a link to more information about Daniel Kahneman -- be sure to read his remarks about the "adversarial collaboration" he enjoyed with his co-researcher, Amos Tversky. Here is his homepage at Princeton, and here is his page on Edge, with links to more of his talks. You may watch his TED talk in its high-res version at this link, and you may download his talk in that and other versions from this page.

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