Should we try to be happy?

We know that too much stress can be bad for our health, but does that necessarily mean that we should strive to be happy? What does happiness even mean?

I watched a TED Talk by Daniel Kahneman, a researcher who is one of today’s most well-known experts in psychology. It got me thinking about how our brains really work, and about how to really lead a happy life. Since I believe we only have one chance at life, it’s something I think about a lot. But maybe “happy” isn’t the way to look at it.

Kahneman suggests that we apply the concept of “happiness” to too many things and situations, and that we must embrace a more complicated view of well-being.

According to him there is a difference between being happy in your life and being happy about your life. And that is because we have two types of selves in terms of experience and memory. So there are at least two ways we measure our happiness.

On the one hand the “experiencing brain” processes the day-to-day feelings and events in our lives. It doesn’t care as much about our over-arching themes or projects. Think about how you feel right now, today and in the present generally, and that’s your experiencing brain’s take on your happiness.

Otherwise, our “remembering brain” judges our overall happiness, but it takes a longer view. It looks at the highs and lows in life, but doesn’t really care about the lengths of those highs and lows. This part of our brain functionality also privileges the most recent things to have happened. Kaheman says that the remembering self “keeps score and maintains the story of our life.”

The crux of it in my view is:

“If you want to maximize the happiness of the two selves, you are going to end up doing very different things. The bottom line of what I've said here is that we really should not think of happiness as a substitute for well-being. It is a completely different notion.”

Culturally we’re taught to strive toward happiness, yet do we ever feel like we truly achieve it? Maybe the best way to be well is to ask ourselves something more like “what do I want to get out of life? How can I lead a good life?” and try to balance the different realities of our “experiencing” and “remembering” brains.

G.W.

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