I have just finished reading Daniel Kahneman‘s book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman is one of the fathers of behavioral economics, having won the Nobel prize in 2002. Thinking, Fast and Slow summarizes much of his work and the state of knowledge on cognitive biases in decision making. There’s a short summary of the book over on Wikipedia. But I encourage you to read the whole thing, which is a treasure trove of insight into how the mind works.
In recent years, Kahneman has been particularly interested in hedonics, i.e. the study of happiness. Experiments show that traditional utility theory cannot be squared with our evaluation of pleasure and pain. Objectively greater levels of pain may be evaluated and recalled as less painful if either the peak of pain is lower or the final parts of the experience are less painful than the experience as a whole. Conversely, the pleasure in an experience can be ruined by less pleasurable moments at the end of it; nonetheless, objectively the pleasure has been had. Kahneman talks of two selves: the experiencing self versus the remembering self. Yet even if the remembering self makes expensive errors, Kahneman cannot dismiss its judgment entirely. Memories are the afterlife of experience, and they matter to happiness also.
Kahneman’s work is of tremendous practical importance, but it raises some theoretical issues which he does not discuss in the book. Specifically, he appears to simply assume that the basis for all the behavior he describes is biological, and ipso facto it is universal. This is doubtless true in part, but it is unlikely that it is true of everything that he discusses. Indeed, the mind can be trained, showing that there is a sociocultural dimension to observed biases and that they are path dependent.
While some errors can be given a plausible evolutionary etiology (but Kahneman warns us to avoid the seductiveness of stories), others, especially the misevaluation of happiness, raise questions as to how the mind has been endemically conditioned by society. Does the remembering self simply get it wrong, or is the experiencing self not really present to its experiences? Our learnt attitudes to experience seem to get in the way.
Ultimately, Kahneman provides a lot of evidence that accidents of life have no long term impact on happiness. Happiness is not obviously generated by what we experience in (adult) life at all, but rather by how we experience it – which has largely been settled by the time we get there. If we experienced life in fullness, we would not be prone to imagining that environmental changes – in job, place, relationship – would generate massive shifts in our well-being. This illusion is a direct result of the lack of well-being we experience because of the bound state of our libido. Given this fact, if we are aiming at gross national happiness, avoidance of disturbances in childhood to our ability to abandon to the natural flow of life should be an overarching priority of public policy.