Monday, April 28, 2008

Happiness and Memory

If you weren't reading the Science Times carefully last week you might have missed the interview with Dan Gilbert. Gilbert wrote that book Stumbling On Happiness. It's a good book, and I wrote before about some of the questions I thought the his arguments raised.

One of the things Gilbert says in the interview is that a hard look at happiness shows that experiences are more likely to make you happy than things. Part of this, he explains, is because experiences tend to be shared with other people. This strikes me as very plausible.

Then he goes on to say that experiences also make us happy because they don't decay:

"People think a car will last and that’s why it will bring you happiness. But it doesn’t. It gets old and decays. But experiences don’t. You’ll “always have Paris” — and that’s exactly what Bogart meant when he said it to Ingrid Bergman. But will you always have a washing machine? No."

Here I get less sure I'm with him. In what sense don't experiences decay? Well, you have the memory of the experience, and even though that may change over time, if the experience was a happy one I'm willing to grant that it will continue to be a happy memory.

I'll grant that it's nice to have happy memories. But would it make you happier? My own sense is that I'm happiest when I'm thinking about the future, not the past. If things are good, and I'm expecting them to get a whole lot better, well, that makes me really happy. If things are good, and I'm expecting them to get a whole lot worse, well, that makes me unhappy.

Perhaps a more complicated thought here is that happy memories aren't just memories of events; they're part of your identity. Gilbert talks about going to visit his small granddaughter, and how happy that will make him. In addition to the obvious things like it's fun, and he loves her, and he'll look back on it fondly, he also gets the feeling of, I'm a doting grandfather.

This, too, though, has a lot to do with the present and future. If you're now estranged from your family, those experiences of the past are likely to present very mixed feelings. It's when they can become a part of your identity and your future that experiences like that matter so much.

Putting these thoughts together, it seems to me Gilbert is slightly overestimating the quality of the experience as a past item, and underemphasizing the importance of experiences as ongoing things. Experiences matter most when they're past, present, and future.

I've written before, here on C and C, about how hard it is to judge "correctly" how much you should care about your future self, as compared to your present self. Often, it seems to me, the present gets shafted: Put that money in savings! Don't have that second glass of wine! Please, think of your future selves!

And yeah, it's true that for experiences to be ongoing you have to have some of that worry. But for experiences to add up in the right sort of way, you can't have too much of it, either.


Captain Colossal said...

As a past-oriented person you might think I'd go along with Gilbert on that. But my memory of a particular experience is, as you say, so linked to my current state that past experiences really don't offer that much happiness independent of how I'm feeling right now.

For example, when the Lakers fell apart after Shaq's departure, it didn't make me feel better to look back on the good times. But now I feel okay about it. If the Nuggets re-take the lead tonight I might change my mind.

Daniel said...

I have wonderful memories of experiences of terrific purchases I've made.

Noko Marie said...

Ha ha Daniel, I know, me too, no kidding! Didn't Barbie say it best? "Shopping is fun!"

And yeah, CC. It's almost like the present makes the past. Kind of an ontological puzzle. Kinda sorta.