Post No.: 0230
Your ‘experiencing self’ (how you actually feel when you’re living life rather than thinking about it) and your ‘remembering self’ (how you feel when remembering a time in your life when looking back upon it with conscious attention) can be considered distinct from each other, and what makes the experiencing self happy isn’t always the same as what makes the remembering self satisfied. Sometimes a bad experience can be encoded with a memory that is favourable of it, and vice versa (e.g. a torturous climb up a mountain that was painful whilst you were experiencing it but is remembered fondly with hindsight, or a relationship that was overall great while it lasted but is remembered bitterly).
So your experiencing self regards how you feel or felt whilst you are or were present during the moment of an experience, and your remembering self regards how you feel about such a past event or time when you’re asked to remember it with hindsight, where the latter could be adulterated by biases that colour our memories, for the better or worse. Or with a slight extrapolation – the experiencing self does the actual living (it’s how you feel when you’re not consciously thinking about how you feel but just getting on with life), whilst the remembering self keeps score and makes the conscious choices (this is how you feel when you consciously start thinking about how you (think you ought to) feel about a past event or your life so far). So your experiencing self could’ve been happy enjoying the sunshine on your skin and the sound of birdsong in your ears, but your remembering self might start to feel unhappy about this moment in your life because you’re remembering that your life plans hadn’t worked out so far. This is the value of mindfulness (being mentally in the present) if you tend to over-think about unhappy past events and in turn negative thoughts about the future.
The state of ‘flow’ is a state of being in the present – it happens when we’re fully engrossed and immersed in an experience that we want to remain in this state and not be interrupted from it. It gives the perception of ‘time flies when we’re having fun’ because we lose track of time. Flow is an example of a state of experiential happiness. Woof!
But we’re ultimately guided by our remembering self when deciding whether to repeat an experience or not. For instance, one enjoyed looking at a piece of art whilst one was looking at it, but because one later found out that it was actually a fake piece painted by a forger, one can feel, with hindsight, that one didn’t enjoy that piece of art that much after all (which is related to the primacy and recency effects on memory too – see Post No.: 0205).
In my own personal furry interpretation, ‘happiness’ concerns the experiencing self, but ‘life satisfaction’ concerns the remembering self – they’re related yet different things. There’s the pain and pleasure we experience in every present moment when we just live, and the good and bad evaluations we give when we think about our life as a whole when we deliberately reflect. Our memories are biased, such as by the ‘peak-end rule’, and so, arguably, our experienced well-being (happiness/experience) is more important to our health than a retrospective health review (life satisfaction/reflection). For example, the total amount of physical activity we did during a particular year is more indicative of our health than what we remember about mainly the most active peak and the end period of this time.
For many people, there is a clear contrast between the well-being they experience as they live their lives, and the judgements they make when they evaluate their lives. (On a ladder with steps numbered from 0 to 10, where 10 at the top represents the best possible self for you and 0 at the bottom represents the worst – where would you say you stand at this time?) This is because some aspects of life have more effect on us or affect us differently than others. For instance, being more highly educated is associated with a higher evaluation of one’s life but not necessarily a greater experienced well-being, whilst a current temporary injury will have an effect on one’s experienced well-being but not on one’s life evaluation. Living with children can be a tiring and stressful experience but can improve one’s life satisfaction, whilst religious participation can improve positive affect yet has little effect on one’s fluffy life evaluation.
The perception of one’s life satisfaction is not a stable trait and can go down as well as up (i.e. it’s not a running sum that can only monotonically aggregate and increase), and in ways that one might not expect either. For example, most people anticipate that marriage will increase their life satisfaction, and as long as the marriage is happy, their life satisfaction should remain in this higher state compared to before they got married – but what tends to happen is that people start off at a base level of life satisfaction, which increases year-on-year in anticipation until the year of marriage when it peaks, but then it falls again year-on-year due to adaptation until one is back to one’s original base level of life satisfaction; and it tends to fall as quickly as it rose (so within a couple to a few years) too.
Getting married can therefore be regarded as an error of ‘affective forecasting’ – people’s expectations of their own future emotional states are usually inaccurate when they try to predict how long positive feelings will last after experiencing a positive event (e.g. winning the lottery, getting married) or how long negative feelings will last after experiencing a negative event (e.g. losing a limb, getting divorced). They don’t last anywhere as long as people tend to intuitively anticipate. (Moreover, although many couples know the high divorce rates in some countries and even higher incidences of marital disappointments, they never believe these statistical odds will apply to them!)
This is partly due to the regression to the mean (the way that things tend to statistically return back towards their long-term average (although there are exceptions)) – back towards one’s natural dispositional state (set point) of happiness and life satisfaction. When routines or experiences become familiar, we psychologically adapt to them and life satisfaction returns towards our natural base or average level of satisfaction. (It’s possibly analogous to physiological homeostatic mechanisms e.g. your blood sugar levels may spike or dip occasionally but it’ll naturally keep on returning back to its normal levels (the exception here is if a person has diabetes).) And when the novelty of getting married or being married wanes and when marriage no longer becomes a salient thought, it comes to mind less immediately and so can be neglected when trying to quickly assess one’s life satisfaction.
Yet even if someone is happily reminded of their wedding day when such a question of life satisfaction is asked, they may feel happier when answering the question but this doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll feel this happy the rest of the time when the direct thought of their wedding day exits their mind again. If the wedding was several years ago then unless they’ve been constantly thinking of happy thoughts about their marriage every day (or at least that day) and nothing else of salience has been happening in their life since, then they won’t automatically stay in this elevated life satisfaction state forever ever after (this is the value of maintaining gratitude for the good things in your life). And their experienced well-being, like for everyone else, will depend on the environment and activities of the present moment (e.g. the chores that need to be done, the lack of sleep due to looking after young children).
On a practical or day-to-day basis, marriage comes with many benefits (e.g. having someone to look after you whenever you’re ill, tax relief allowances) plus it may of course mean spending less time alone, being with someone you love and having more sex – but it can also mean spending less time with friends and more time doing housework, and overall they may cancel each other out. So it’s not that marriage makes no difference to happiness or life satisfaction – it changes some aspects of life for the better and some for the worse. Maybe life satisfaction is also judged relative to one’s peers, thus getting married before the age of, say, 40 is not so much a bonus in life as merely keeping even with others – after all, being ‘rich’ can be judged relatively too rather than absolutely in terms of having enough to eat, to keep a house and to have some leisure time (a person born privileged may even feel that a million dollar loan from his/her parents is small!)
Therefore even life satisfaction generally has a personal ‘set point’ that one tends to gravitates back towards, even though it doesn’t have a limit like happiness does. The biggest smile cannot get any bigger thus experiential happiness has a limit, whereas one could feel that one could always mark ever more territories to improve one’s life satisfaction – but any material gains won’t likely increase our life satisfaction for as long as we’d hoped so the notion of ‘enough’ can endlessly shift and hence greed has no bounds. Some things are able to raise our set point (e.g. altruism) or drop our set point (e.g. depression) of both our happiness and life satisfaction for the mid to long-term though i.e. we don’t adapt to them. However, these activities or states must be maintained or chronic. (It’s difficult to want to be kind or to volunteer if one is depressed though – after all, one will barely feel that one has the energy to care for oneself; but activities like altruism are beneficial for a sufferer’s, or anyone’s, well-being.)
All in all, it can be up to us whether we wish to focus on our experiencing self or our remembering/evaluating self for a particular situation. For example, you may acknowledge before you exercise that the exercise will be tough but that you are going to be very satisfied after doing it, then being mindfully present when exercising so that you are not worrying about the past or future during this time but focused on the only thing that you can control, which is now. Sometimes it’s better to concentrate on and be grateful for the meal that’s right in front of you. Sometimes remembering how far you’ve come will make you feel happy. Thinking about the future can be good or bad too depending on whether it seems positive or negative.