Monday, September 20, 2021


Happiness is a choice between experience and memory

By Jaykhosh Chidambaran

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Man’s pursuit of happiness is as old as civilization and seldom has been a topic that is subject to intense philosophical deliberations, religious discourse and psychological research to unravel its mysteries. Exhaustive expositions on the causality of unhappiness are abundant in all ancient and medieval religions. The inscrutable Upanishads, Buddhist Four Noble Truths, the Jewish Tanakh, the New Testament, Islamic scriptures and Hadiths, Zoroastrianism, Babylonian and Hellenistic paganism to the profound Taoism and Confucianism all lead to a fundamental, underlying reality- the irrevocable role of mind in happiness. Therefore, happiness is a choice of human will.

Rene Descartes, the influential French philosopher-mathematician, in the heydays of the 17th century Enlightenment, made a cardinal philosophical proposition “I Think, Therefore I am”. This canonical principle is the proof of the reality of the self-a thinking entity-that ascertains the existence of individual identities. The self could be translated as consciousness or mind and comes first in the order of knowledge, prior to any physical matter or phenomenal experience.

Happiness is the identification and filtering of those cathartic moments- when the floodgates of our hearts are opened- captured and imprinted by the self in our routine lives. Human beings run into complicated cognitive traps in their quest for happiness, which eclipses their understanding of it, and finally reducing it to an elusive dream. The eminent, Nobel Laureate psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, in his seminal work mentions that we have an “Experiencing Self” and a “Remembering Self” and people often confuse the two entities in thinking about happiness.

It represents a riddle between experience and memory, the difference between being happy in your life and being happy about your life or with your life. The Experiencing Self lives in the present while the Remembering Self lives in the past and faithfully records events which incidentally is the story of your life. Kahneman expounds this difference, the real conundrum through an interesting example of a man listening to a spellbinding symphony for twenty minutes and at the end of the recording was a horrible screeching sound, probably due to a corrupted CD. When subsequently asked about his experience of the music, he emotionally averred that the whole experience was ruined by the dreadful sound.

This is absolutely untrue since he enjoyed glorious, heavenly music for twenty minutes when he was transported to a state of bliss by the Experiencing Self. The disaster was the memories of the experience. The actual experience that gave him ethereal happiness, filling his heart with joy counted for nothing because memories were all that remained. And that memory was ruined. Our notion of happiness is almost, inescapably tied to our memories and therefore in the temporal sequence of events, the happiness we receive by the Experiencing Self is lost forever.

A bad memory at the beginning or end of a chain of experiences can dominate our evaluation of happiness of a specific event like a vacation, the outcomes of a business relationship or the measurement of satisfaction in an interaction with a customer service agent.

Time is a critical variable that influences and distinguishes the Experiencing Self from the Remembering Self. It warrants that it is not just important to have a good beginning but also essential to have good or great endings. This maxim is especially true of human relationships in the contemporary world, where we witness a dearth of love, broken families and soaring divorces because individuals cannot differentiate and reconcile the years of beautiful associations of the Experiencing Self with a few appalling and obnoxious incidents of the Remembering Self.

Man is exposed to hundreds of millions of momentary experiences in his lifetime and by the Law of Total Probability, assuming 50% of those experiences are good, the Remembering Self-will condense and record only less than 0.5% of the aggregate. Life is worth living and contended if anyone endeavors to contemplate on the quantum of splendid moments lived in the Experiencing Self.

No human being is spared of offensive behavior from another in individual, filial, marital or social relationships and unless the perpetrator is incorrigibly wicked and calumnious, he/she is eligible for compassion and forgiveness since humans by design, are pugnacious and by nature, imperfect and fallible.

Consistency in consuming and supplying good memories are therefore inevitable in leading a healthy, happy and balanced life. This perennial truth extends to all spheres of human activity and interpersonal interactions. Human choices are often the result of suggestions and motivations of the Remembering Self. For an organization it may take 5 years to build brand equity, positive brand associations and loyal customers but with a myopic and insensitive strategy, could lose all the acquired goodwill in 5 days!

People don’t recollect the hundred good things done to them, but vengefully remember that one mishap, hurt or humiliation for a lifetime. The decisions people make are predominantly irrational and overwhelmingly driven by emotions and this Bounded Rationality is reinforced by the tyrannical Remembering Self, the storyteller of our lives.

Mankind should reconfigure their minds on the meaning of happiness, not just in terms of “incident collectors” of good or bad memories, but religiously capturing those precious moments in the psychological present and making it their own, that has offered them joy, hope, promise and an inexplicable sense of well-being. Being happy in our lives is more important than being happy about our lives. Time and memory operate in different realities and perceptions of happiness. Happiness is not a substitute for well-being, which is attaining a meditative awareness by living fully in the present. This understanding is the true essence of happiness…

About the author : Jaykhosh Chidambaran is an accomplished management professional with over 20 years of diverse industry experience in MNC’s and is currently an EdTech Growth and Strategy Consultant for India & Middle East. He is an alumnus of Chicago Booth School of Business. 

Disclaimer : The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of TAS and TAS does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.