Psychology of happiness 1: Notes on Kahneman’s work

Below are my research notes based on:

  1. Chapter 5 of Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
  2. Living, and thinking about it: Two perspectives on life, by Daniel Kahneman & Jason Riis
  3. Experienced Utility and Objective Happiness: A Moment-Based Approach, by Daniel Kahneman

For a quick overview see also Kahneman’s TED talk.

Experiencing vs. Remembering Self

  • Remembering Self
    • “Overall how would satisfied are you with your life?”
      • connected to decision utility (“wantability”, one used in economics)
      • focus of most of the well-being, life satisfaction literature
      • also called: (overall) life satisfaction
      • domain of System 2
        • but hampered by:
          1. Peak/end effect
          2. focusing illusion
          3. can be affected by recent emotional effects
            • e.g. availability heuristic, current affect, recency bias
          4. Culture can play a role in different effect (France vs. US)
  • Experiencing Self
    • “How happy/satisfied do you feel right know at this moment?”
    • connected to “hedonic” utility (how “good” you feel)
    • measured by: real-time sampling, or detailed day reconstruction
    • also called: “U-index” (fraction of time spend in negative emotional state)
    • Example of sampling results – U-index was:
      • 29% for the morning commute,
      • 27% for work,
      • 24% for child care,
      • 18% for housework,
      • 12% for socializing,
      • 12% for TV watching,
      • 5% for sex.
  • Trade-of between selves
    • Kahneman’s initial vs. current position:
      • initial: experiencing self is more relevant, “live in the moment”
      • current: need to take care of both of them
    • what changed his mind:
      • Coherent definition of well-being needs to take into account our goals (preferences) which in turn do have impact on life-satisfaction
    • Effect of Goals
      • ask students how much they value money
      • follow-up in 20 years
      • those who value more, earn more (even housewives!)
      • those who earn more & value more are more satisfied than those that earn less & value more

Remembering vs. experiential well-being – impact on policies

  • policies especially medicine and welfare:
    • E.g. investment that should be made in the treatment of e.g. blindness:
    • Should the investments be determined by how much people fear these conditions?
      • => Focusing illusion (Seeing)
    • Should investments be guided by the suffering that patients actually experience?
      • => Ignores preferences (there is not much difference in experiential happiness between blind and seeing)
    • Or should they follow the intensity of the patients’ desire to be relieved from their condition?
      • => Focusing illusion (Blind)
  • Should a policy make people experientially better of even if it is “remembered” as worse
  • Should a policy make people miserable so that they remember it as more positive
    • concrete example: colonoscopy experiment / cold water experiment
  • Remembering-self has a stronger saying in deliberate decision making (picking holidays, or treatment procedure), but not always (hyperbolic discounting)

Patient A suffers less (experiencing self), but rates the procedure worse than Patient B. If given choice to repeat the procedure, the option B is preferred – i.e. more suffering. Should a policymaker comply? I was always saying, life is like a colonoscopy.

Happiness Puzzles

  • Marriage Satisfaction
    • this is effect on remembering: around marriage you are likely to recall it and include it in the overall eval
    • effect on experiential well-being: neutral, it just redistributes (less positive time with friends, more chores, but more positive time with partner)


    Show this to your husband/wife for an awkward conversation.

  • Genetics
    • on both the remembering and experiential self has a major effect
  • France vs. US
    • france reports well-being on the level of unemployed americans
    • experiential well-being turns out to be: about same level
    • “Culture” has a large effect on the reporting
  • Income
    • experiential well-being plateaus at ~75k annual family income
    • remembering-self well-being continues to grow
    • Summary plot from Kahneman & Deaton 2010:


  • Holidays
    • you plan holidays for remembering self, not experiencing self
    • e.g.:
      • spend 10 days in Baltic seeing billion things
      • spend 30 mins / year fondly remembering and 30 mins / year reviewing photos (I’m supper generous here)
      • for that you “tortured” your experiencing self
        • of course it is not only about pure hedons, point is that remembering self if strongly overweighted in decision making
    • Thought Experiment
      • money/time is not an issue, you can go for 10 days wherever and do whatever
      • afterwards your memory will be wiped and photos deleted
      • will you plan a different kind of holiday?

Peak/end effect

  • best predictor for remembering self: average between the peak and the end satisfaction / pain
  • duration has next to no impact
  • “horrible noise at the end of record destroyed the whole experience”

Focusing illusion = focalism

  • “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.”
  • E.g. buying a fancy car
    • How happy will it make me? very!
    • When does it make me happy? When I think about it
    • How often will you think about it? Actually not much!
  • famous experiment:
    • California vs. Ohio Weather
    • quadriplegic (ask people how happy they think they are 1/2 years after, people will overestimate their unhappiness because they focus on thinking about their disability)

Affective forecasting and miswanting

Affective forecasting
predicting emotional effects of future events or things

  • we are terrible at it (focalism, impact bias etc.)


wanting out of biased reason, due to failure of affective forecasting

Hedonic vs. Aspirational adaptation

  • Example
    • you were poor, ate crappy food, enjoyment ranked 5/10 (remembering self)
    • you get rich, you eat great food, time passes, you rank food again 5/10 (remembering self)
  • Hedonic treadmill / adaptation
    • you get used to the recent standard and revert to your set point
    • it means: you actually enjoy (experiencing self) less the better food
  • Aspirational adaptation
    • instead: we have aspirational set-point: somewhere between the base happiness and best-hope outcome
    • with time this baseline adjust higher, but not necessarily the overall enjoyment
      • I.e. experienced self-would rank the food 9/10 (i.e. no real hedonic adaptation), but the remembering self says 5/10 due to aspirational adaptation
  • Summary
    • it is likely that both occur
    • hedonic adaptation is important, but can be established only by sampling experiencing self not remembering self
    • conditions do matter to the experiencing self
      • better food IS better even if you have it every day
      • better city IS better even after longer time
    • but for remembering self the difference becomes invisible

One thought on “Psychology of happiness 1: Notes on Kahneman’s work

  1. Pingback: Psychology of happiness 2: If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right | suboptimum

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