Everywhere you turn there are books, articles, and podcasts about becoming happy. And that would lead one to believe that happiness is what we want (or there wouldn’t be so much chatter about it).
But according to cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman, many of us are aiming higher than happiness. Instead, we’re seeking life satisfaction, which can actually inhibit happiness in the process.
For example, in Kahneman’s research measuring everyday happiness — the experiences that leave people feeling good — he found that spending time with friends was highly effective. Yet those focused on long-term goals that yield satisfaction don’t necessarily prioritize socializing, as they’re busy with the bigger picture.
This leads Kahneman to conclude that we’re not as interested in happiness when it comes down to it. And even if you did strive for maximum happiness, those feelings would remain fleeting and never amount to life satisfaction — because you probably won’t remember them.
The persistence of memory
Happiness is in the moment, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. On the other hand, satisfaction is retrospective, and our memories endure even while the happy moments pass.
In Kahneman’s work, he found that people tell themselves a story about their lives, which may or may not add up to a pleasing tale. Yet, our day-to-day experiences yield positive feelings that may not advance that longer story, necessarily.
For a quick fix of happiness, you should spend time with people you enjoy. But we often forego that opportunity to instead focus on things that are meaningful to us, and therefore contribute to our life narrative in a satisfying way.
Do it for the story
Let’s say you were offered the chance to go on your dream vacation. But there’s a catch — you won’t be able to remember any of it, and you can’t even take photos.
You might decide it’s not worth going. Even though the experience of the vacation would be the same, the inability to reflect on it later makes it effectively meaningless to you. The story that our memories represent is more important than the good time provided by the experience itself.
We forego or delay happiness all the time in favor of meaning and purpose. People who raise children report being less happy, for example, but most wouldn’t trade it for the world.
In the end, the satisfaction we achieve from reflecting on what we’ve done with our lives matters most. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make a little room for happiness along the way.