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Sam Harris“One of the most interesting things to come out of the research on human happiness is the discovery that we are very bad judges of how we will feel in the future—an ability that the psychologist Daniel Gilbert has called ‘affective forecasting.’ Gilbert and others have shown that we systematically overestimate the degree to which good and bad experiences will affect us. Changes in wealth, health, age, marital status, etc., tend not to matter as much as we think they will—and yet we make our most important decisions in life based on these inaccurate assumptions. It is useful to know that what we think will matter often matters much less than we think. Conversely, things we consider trivial can actually impact our lives greatly. If you have ever been impressed by how people often rise to the occasion while experiencing great hardship but can fall to pieces over minor inconveniences, you have seen this principle at work. The general finding of this research is now uncontroversial: we are poorly placed to accurately recall the past, to perceive the present, or to anticipate the future with respect to our own happiness. It seems little wonder, therefore, that we are so often unfulfilled.

If you ask people to report on their level of well-being moment-to-moment — by giving them a beeper that sounds at random intervals, prompting them to record their mental state — you get one measure of how happy they are. If, however, you simply ask them how satisfied they are with their lives generally, you often get a very different measure. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls the first source of information ‘the experiencing self’ and the second ‘the remembering self.’ And his justification for partitioning the human mind in this way is that these two ‘selves’ often disagree. Indeed, they can be experimentally shown to disagree, even across a relatively brief span of time. We saw this earlier with respect to Kahneman’s data on colonoscopies: because ‘the remembering self’ evaluates any experience by reference to its peak intensity and its final moments (the ‘peak/end rule’), it is possible to improve its lot, at the expense of ‘the experiencing self,’ by simply prolonging an unpleasant procedure at its lowest level of intensity (and thereby reducing the negativity of future memories).

What applies to colonoscopies seems to apply elsewhere in life. Imagine, for instance, that you want to go on vacation: You are deciding between a trip to Hawaii and a trip to Rome. On Hawaii, you envision yourself swimming in the ocean, relaxing on the beach, playing tennis, and drinking mai tais. Rome will find you sitting in cafés, visiting museums and ancient ruins, and drinking an impressive amount of wine. Which vacation should you choose? It is quite possible that your ‘experiencing self’ would be much happier on Hawaii, as indicated by an hourly tally of your emotional and sensory pleasure, while your remembering self would give a much more positive account of Rome one year hence. Which self would be right? Does the question even make sense? Kahneman observes that while most of us think our ‘experiencing self’ must be more important, it has no voice in our decisions about what to do in life. After all, we can’t choose from among experiences; we must choose from among remembered (or imagined) experiences. And, according to Kahneman, we don’t tend to think about the future as a set of experiences; we think of it as a set of ‘anticipated memories.’ The problem, with regard to both doing science and living one’s life, is that the ‘remembering self’ is the only one who can think and speak about the past. It is, therefore, the only one who can consciously make decisions in light of past experience…

It seems clear, however, that the ‘remembering self’ is simply the ‘experiencing self’ in one of its modes…

If we could take the 2.5 billion seconds that make up the average human life and assess a person’s well-being at each point in time, the distinction between the ‘experiencing self’ and the ‘remembering self’ would disappear. Yes, the experience of recalling the past often determines what we decide to do in the future—and this greatly affects the character of one’s future experience. But it would still be true to say that in each of the 2.5 billion seconds of an average life, certain moments were pleasant, and others were painful; some were later recalled with greater or lesser fidelity, and these memories had whatever effects they had later on. Consciousness and its ever-changing contents remain the only subjective reality.

Thus, if your ‘remembering self’ claims to have had a wonderful time in Rome, while your ‘experiencing self’ felt only boredom, fatigue, and despair, then your ‘remembering self’ (i.e., your recollection of the trip) is simply wrong about what it was like to be you in Rome. This becomes increasingly obvious the more we narrow our focus: Imagine a ‘remembering self’ who thinks that you were especially happy while sitting for fifteen minutes on the Spanish Steps; while your ‘experiencing self’ was, in fact, plunged deeper into misery for every one of those minutes than at any other point on the trip. Do we need two selves to account for this disparity? No. The vagaries of memory suffice.

As Kahneman admits, the vast majority of our experiences in life never get recalled, and the time we spend actually remembering the past is comparatively brief. Thus, the quality of most of our lives can be assessed only in terms of whatever fleeting character it has as it occurs. But this includes the time we spend recalling the past. Amid this flux, the moments in which we construct a larger story about our lives appear like glints of sunlight on a dark river: they may seem special, but they are part of the current all the same.”


An absolutely reorienting insight from chapter five of Sam Harris’s ambitious new book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.

I found and have read the whole book here. But buy it to support one of our best thinkers and writers about cognition and philosophy.