Experiencing and remembering happiness

Since coming home after finishing my project in Ecuador I have been reviewing all my photos and scanning through my emails and daily notes I took while on the road and on the mountains. Now that I have begun writing the book about my adventure, I realize the need to immerse myself back into the details of certain situations to regain that same perspective of being ‘out there’ as compared to sitting back home and writing from a distance.

I have also been reading several books in the last two months, mostly about happiness and behavioral economics. It fascinates me to understand what incentives we respond to, what influences our decisions and causes us to make mistakes and/or irrational decisions, and what we think will make us happy. I have mused here before on the topic of enjoyment and happiness, mostly focusing on the difference of short-term pleasure (instant gratification) by satisfying simple urges vs. long-lasting happiness after achieving complex goals.

When reviewing my materials I am often struck by how I described the experience back then as compared to how I remember it now. For example, there is much more fatigue and discomfort in those daily notes and emails than what I remember most from certain parts of my trip. It has been known that our long-term memory of experiences can differ substantially from the actual sensory experience at the time, specifically when it comes to the sense of happiness. Cognitive psychologists have studied this experimentally. A typical experimental setting would have volunteering subjects carrying a pager throughout the day; they were asked to record their level of happiness each time when the pager beeped at random intervals. Later they were asked to rate their overall level of happiness when thinking about their lives over the entire period of time. The first is a rating of happiness in the present moment by the experiencing self; the second is a rating of happiness about the past by the remembering self. As Daniel Hahneman has pointed out, there is often a big difference between the experiencing and the remembering self.

If I had been paged at random times throughout my trip, chances are you would find a lot of low happiness recordings: Being tired and thirsty on the road while cycling towards my daily goal; being cold and hungry on the mountain while climbing towards the next camp. Yet, when asked after the fact, my recollection is far more joyous and optimistic – I am genuinely happy about the entire experience. Why is that?

I suspect that there are at least two reasons:
First, the way our memories work at the neurological level is such that we remember emotionally intense situations more clearly than the average, dull moments. The joy of reaching the daily goal or camp, taking that hot shower and eating that satisfying meal is remembered long after the many hours riding towards the horizon on seemingly endless roads will be forgotten. The exciting sight of a grizzly or black bear in Canada is remembered more vividly than the endless tundra or forests during what someone called “counting 3000 miles of trees”. While we forget the multitude of average moments feeling rather tired and uncomfortable, we remember the few exciting moments feeling exhilarated very well.
Second, memories and biases therein are self-reinforcing when recalled frequently. The experiencing self is gone forever shortly after the event; thereafter it is only the remembering self controlling the ‘experience’. And if one favors one emotion over another for whatever reason one tends to remember and associate that emotion more with the actual event even if it wasn’t as strong when it actually happened. If I repeatedly state that I generally felt great while up on the mountain, I will over time be less able to distinguish that stated sentiment from how I really felt up there anticipating getting out of the sleeping bag in the morning into -25 degrees freezing air. Not until I look at my daily notes typed on the iPhone for that day…

The remembering self tells us how happy we (think we) were in the past, the experiencing self tells us how happy we are in the present. One could add the predicting self which tells us how happy we (think we) will be in the future; it obviously plays a huge role when we are planning our journeys or adventures. However, as psychologists like Daniel Gilbert or Dan Ariely have found out, we are notoriously poor predictors of how certain events will impact us emotionally. We predict being deliriously happy after winning the lottery or devastated after a crippling accident. Yet, a few months after such events most people are right back to the level of happiness they had before. So did I fool myself predicting that this adventure would make me happier? Something to analyze in more detail in my book…

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