Why Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman Gave Up on Happiness

The cognitive psychologist spent years studying happiness, yet now he considers satisfaction and life satisfaction of greater importance to people

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German tourists in Hawaii, August 2018. We usually choose our next vacation not as an experience but as a future memory.
German tourists in Hawaii, August 2018. We usually choose our next vacation not as an experience but as a future memory.Credit: Marco Garcia, AP
Amir Mandel
Amir Mandel
Amir Mandel
Amir Mandel

What did I consider more important about my meeting with Nobel Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman? My enjoyment of the meeting, which was fascinating and inspirational – or the photo that shows me talking with one of the world’s most brilliant men? According to Kahneman, this is a complex question that has caused confusion in happiness studies for many years.

He came to the study of happiness through a circuitous route, as an outgrowth of research in which he sought to understand the connection between what we experience in real time – that is, the life we lead – and what we remember of these experiences (i.e., the narrative we carry with us and tell about our lives).

A Tel Aviv native and professor emeritus at Princeton, Kahneman, 84, is a cognitive psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002 for research conducted jointly with Amos Tversky (who died in 1996). The two modeled a systematic, inbuilt set of cognitive biases and logical failures in our method of thinking that influences contexts, conclusions and decision-making. They then demonstrated how, as a result, we make decisions on the basis of erroneous assessments and intuitions that are inconsistent with either statistics or common sense.

The research and behavioral models derived from their studies had a significant effect on the economic sciences, forcing it to change its models – which had previously been based on the fundamental assumption of rational behavior. Kahneman’s insights created the field of behavioral economics: A field that seeks to evaluate the influence of irrational, impulsive human behavior.

In the 1990s, Kahneman studied another form of cognitive bias: That there is a discrepancy between our experiences as we experience them while they’re actually happening, and our memories of those same experiences.

Daniel Kahneman, another famous Israel-linked Nobel winner.Credit: Moti Milrod

The subject of his initial research was not sexy and quite distant from the happiness debate. The study documented, in real time, patients’ degree of suffering during a colonoscopy (it was a painful procedure at the time, unlike today).

It turned out there was no connection between the length of the procedure and level of pain a patient experienced and described at the time, and the extent of trauma he recalled afterward. The memory was based primarily on whether the pain increased or decreased toward the end of the procedure. The stronger the pain in the final stage of the procedure, the more traumatic it became in the patient’s memory – with no connection to the question of how much pain he actually experienced during it.

Positive experiences are processed similarly. In a 2010 lecture, Kahneman related the story of a man who told him about listening to a symphony he loved, “absolutely glorious music.” But at the end there was a “dreadful screeching sound” that, the man said, ruined the whole experience for him.

But as Kahneman pointed out, it hadn’t actually destroyed the experience, because the man enjoyed the music at the time. Rather, it ruined his memory of the experience, which is something completely different.

“We live and experience many moments, but most of them are not preserved,” Kahneman said. “They are lost forever. Our memory collects certain parts of what happened to us and processes them into a story. We make most of our decisions based on the story told by our memory.

“For example, a vacation – we don’t remember, or experience, the entire time we spent on vacation, but only the impressions preserved in our memory, the photographs and the documentation. Moreover, we usually choose the next vacation not as an experience but as a future memory. If prior to the decision about our next vacation we assume that at the end all the photos will be erased, and we’ll be given a drug that will also erase our memory, it’s quite possible that we’ll choose a different vacation from the one that we actually choose.”

A very vague concept

Kahneman’s studies of “What I experience” versus “What I remember” are what led him to get involved in the study of happiness.

“I put together a group of researchers, including an economist whom I viewed as both a partner in the group and its principal client,” he told me when we met earlier this year. “We wanted to figure out what factors affect happiness and to try to work to change conditions and policies accordingly. Economists have more influence on policy.

“The group developed a model known as DRM, or Day Reconstruction Method – a fairly successful method of reconstructing experiences throughout the day. It gives results similar to those of ‘What I experience’ and is easier to do.”

It turns out there are significant differences between the narrative that we remember and tell, and the feelings of day-to-day happiness we experience at the time – to the point that Kahneman believes the general term “happiness” is too vague and can’t be applied to both.

He views “happiness” as the feeling of enjoyment a person experiences here and now – for instance, two weeks of relaxation on the beach, or an enjoyable conversation with an interesting person. What is described as happiness in the “What I remember” is something Kahneman prefers to call – as he did more than once in his series of studies – “satisfaction” or “life satisfaction.”

Amir Mandel speaking with Daniel Kahneman, March 2018. What did I consider more important about our meeting? My enjoyment of the meeting or the photo?Credit: Moti Milrod

“Life satisfaction is connected to a large degree to social yardsticks – achieving goals, meeting expectations,” he explained. “It’s based on comparisons with other people.

“For instance, with regard to money, life satisfaction rises in direct proportion to how much you have. In contrast, happiness is affected by money only when it’s lacking. Poverty can buy a lot of suffering, but above the level of income that satisfies basic needs, happiness, as I define it, doesn’t increase with wealth. The graph is surprisingly flat.

Angus Deaton.Credit: AFP

“Economist Angus Deaton, the Nobel Prize laureate for 2015, was also involved in these conclusions. Happiness in this sense depends, to a large extent, on genetics – on a natural ability to be happy. It’s also connected to a genetic disposition to optimism. They are apparently the same genes.

“To the degree that outside factors affect this aspect of happiness,” he continued, “they’re related solely to people: We’re happy in the company of people we like, especially friends – more so than with partners. Children can cause great happiness, at certain moments.”

‘I was miserable’

At about the same time as these studies were being conducted, the Gallup polling company (which has a relationship with Princeton) began surveying various indicators among the global population. Kahneman was appointed as a consultant to the project.

“I suggested including measures of happiness, as I understand it – happiness in real time. To these were added data from Bhutan, a country that measures its citizens’ happiness as an indicator of the government’s success. And gradually, what we know today as Gallup’s World Happiness Report developed. It has also been adopted by the UN and OECD countries, and is published as an annual report on the state of global happiness.

“A third development, which is very important in my view, was a series of lectures I gave at the London School of Economics in which I presented my findings about happiness. The audience included Prof. Richard Layard – a teacher at the school, a British economist and a member of the House of Lords – who was interested in the subject. Eventually, he wrote a book about the factors that influence happiness, which became a hit in Britain,” Kahneman said, referring to “Happiness: Lessons from a New Science.”

“Layard did important work on community issues, on improving mental health services – and his driving motivation was promoting happiness. He instilled the idea of happiness as a factor in the British government’s economic considerations.

“The involvement of economists like Layard and Deaton made this issue more respectable,” Kahneman added with a smile. “Psychologists aren’t listened to so much. But when economists get involved, everything becomes more serious, and research on happiness gradually caught the attention of policy-making organizations.

“At the same time,” said Kahneman, “a movement has also developed in psychology – positive psychology – that focuses on happiness and attributes great importance to internal questions like meaning. I’m less certain of that.

Tourists in New York posing near a homeless man. "In general, if you want to reduce suffering, mental health is a good place to start," says Kahneman.Credit: Reuters

“People connect happiness primarily to the company of others. I recall a conversation with Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, in which he tried to convince me I had a meaningful life. I insisted – and I still think this today – that I had an interesting life. ‘Meaningful’ isn’t something I understand. I’m a lucky person and also fairly happy – mainly because, for most of my life, I’ve worked with people whose company I enjoyed.”

Then, referring to his 2011 best-seller “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” he added, “There were four years when I worked alone on a book. That was terrible, and I was miserable.”

Despite Kahneman’s reservations, trends in positive psychology have come to dominate the science of happiness. One of the field’s most prominent representatives is Prof. Tal Ben-Shahar, who taught the most popular course in Harvard’s history (in spring 2006), on happiness and leadership.

Following in his footsteps, lecturers at Yale developed a course on happiness that attracted masses of students and overshadowed every other course offered at the prestigious university.

“In positive psychology, it seems to me they’re trying to convince people to be happy without making any changes in their situation,” said Kahneman, skeptically. “To learn to be happy. That fits well with political conservatism.”

I pointed out to Kahneman that Buddhism – including Tibetan Buddhism’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, which whom he is in contact – also places great emphasis on changing a person’s inner spiritual state. “That’s true to a large extent,” he agreed, “but in a different way, in my opinion. Buddhism has a different social worldview.

“But in any case, I confess that I participated in a meeting with the Dalai Lama at MIT, and some of his people were there – including one of his senior people, who lives in Paris and serves as his contact person and translator in France. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from this man. He radiated. He had such inner peace and such a sense of happiness, and I’m absolutely not cynical enough to overlook it.”

Tending to mental health

Kahneman studied happiness for over two decades, gave rousing lectures and, thanks to his status, contributed to putting the issue on the agenda of both countries and organizations, principally the UN and the OECD. Five years ago, though, he abandoned this line of research.

Two French women laughing at a cafe in Paris, April 2017. "We’re happy in the company of people we like, especially friends," says Kahneman.Credit: Bloomberg

“I gradually became convinced that people don’t want to be happy,” he explained. “They want to be satisfied with their life.”

A bit stunned, I asked him to repeat that statement. “People don’t want to be happy the way I’ve defined the term – what I experience here and now. In my view, it’s much more important for them to be satisfied, to experience life satisfaction, from the perspective of ‘What I remember,’ of the story they tell about their lives. I furthered the development of tools for understanding and advancing an asset that I think is important but most people aren’t interested in.

“Meanwhile, awareness of happiness has progressed in the world, including annual happiness indexes. It seems to me that on this basis, what can confidently be advanced is a reduction of suffering. The question of whether society should intervene so that people will be happier is very controversial, but whether society should strive for people to suffer less – that’s widely accepted.

“Much of Layard’s activity on behalf of happiness in England related to bolstering the mental health system. In general, if you want to reduce suffering, mental health is a good place to start – because the extent of illness is enormous and the intensity of the distress doesn’t allow for any talk of happiness. We also need to talk about poverty and about improving the workplace environment, where many people are abused.”

My interview with Kahneman took place as I started working on the Haaretz series of articles “The Secret of Happiness,” and was initially meant to conclude it. It was the key to the entire series. It’s interesting that Kahneman, one of the leading symbols of happiness research, eventually became dubious and quit, while proposing that we primarily address causes of suffering.

The “secret of happiness” hasn’t been deciphered. Even the term’s definition remains vague. Genetics and luck play an important role in it.

Nevertheless, a few insights that emerged from the series have stayed with me: I’m amazed by Layard’s activity. I was impressed by the tranquility of the Buddhist worldview and the practices that accompany it. Personally, I’ve chosen to practice meditation with a technique adapted to people from Western cultures.

I learned to collect experiences and not necessarily memories, which can be disputed. I don’t mind sitting for three hours in a Paris café or spending a day wandering through the streets of Berlin, without noting a single monument or having a single incident that I could recount. I gave up on income to do what I enjoy – like, for instance, writing about happiness and music.

Above all, it has become clear that our best hours are spent in the company of people we like. With this resource, it pays to be generous.

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