The present is all there is to happiness

What psychologists get wrong about happiness

The idea that happiness is more than just how we feel at any one moment has been around since Aristotle. Today, psychology draws a distinction between emotional well-being in the present and overall life satisfaction. This distinction, however, is a mistake. Life satisfaction is just a small part of our overall emotional well-being. Happiness is always judged in the present, not from some abstract vantage point that views our life as a whole, argues Steven Campbell-Harris.


Picture two kinds of life.

In one, your day-to-day is mostly stressful and anxiety-provoking, with occasional bursts of joy or pleasure. Nevertheless, when you reflect on your life you find that - despite its difficulties- you are satisfied. You feel you make a difference in the world and judge your life worthwhile.

In the other life, your days are for the most part pleasurable and carefree. You rarely feel sad, uncomfortable, or afraid. But when you take the time to think about your life, you feel strangely empty. You enjoy your life, to be sure, but that doesn’t make you satisfied.

Now take a moment to consider, which of these lives (if you had to choose) would you rather live? And who would you say is the happier of the two?


Aristotle wrote approvingly of the proverb ‘call no man happy until he is dead’, while the utilitarian John Stuart Mill later observed ‘ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so.’


This thought experiment illustrates a common distinction that psychologists make when thinking about happiness.  Happiness, according to them, can be understood as a feeling, or as a more enduring sense of life-satisfaction. These two different ideas about happiness explain the apparently contradictory ways we often talk about it. Sometimes, saying we are happy means making a judgement about our life as a whole; we look to our past, telling a story about how we got here. At other times, saying we are happy expresses how we feel in the moment, fully immersed in an experience, perhaps while enjoying a delicious meal with friends, listening to music, dancing, or laughing.

Philosophers have also tended to think of happiness in opposing ways. Aristotle wrote approvingly of the proverb ‘call no man happy until he is dead’, while the utilitarian John Stuart Mill later observed ‘ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so.’ The former implies that ‘happiness’ is a holistic account of your life; it requires distance and perspective. The latter suggests that happiness is an unreflective immersion in life; if you try to step outside, it loses its fragrant immediacy.  The problem, however, is that this distinction that both psychologists and philosophers have emphasized doesn’t hold water.


Life satisfaction, properly considered, is not separate from emotional well-being but a part of it.


Recently, the efforts of psychologists to measure happiness have breathed new life into the distinction between happiness as a feeling, or happiness as life-satisfaction. Sonja Lyubomirsky, in her book ‘The How of Happiness’, distinguishes between happiness in your life and happiness with your life. ‘Emotional well-being’ measures the former by looking at the frequency and intensity of your positive emotions (e. g. joy, gratitude, excitement) and negative emotions (e. g. anxiety, stress, annoyance) as you go about your day. Researchers send you regular alerts, and you describe how you feel at the time, in the moment. The measurement of happiness with your life, on the other hand, is called ‘life satisfaction’. Researchers typically ask a question such as ‘Looking back at your life, overall how happy are you?’ and record your answer on a scale of one to ten. 

For those that measure these things, life satisfaction and emotional well-being represent different ways of judging what makes life worthwhile, two contrasting visions of what we might call ‘the good life.’ But this is a mistake. Life satisfaction, properly considered, is not separate from emotional well-being but a part of it. To think otherwise means relying on distinctions between experience and memory, and between judgment and feeling, that break down on closer examination. We delude ourselves when we think that by considering our life as a whole, we can transcend it.

Imagine that you are about to embark on holiday. At the end of it, your memory will be wiped, and all your photos destroyed. No evidence of the trip will survive. Suppose you knew all of this would happen in advance, so you could go on a different holiday than the one you had planned. Would this information affect your choice?

This thought experiment, designed by Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize-winning psychologist behind the bestseller ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, is intended to illustrate that we possess two different selves: an ‘experiencing self’ and a ‘remembering self’. Whenever we decide to go on holiday, these different selves prioritise different things. Should we care more about the quality of the experience at the time (serving the ‘experiencing self’) or about the memories we can take away (serving the ‘remembering self’)? If we care more about the first, we may be unfazed by the loss of our memories. After all, we still have the same experience. But if we care more about the second, we may choose holidays that build rich memories over those that are more enjoyable in the moment. If we generalise from the holiday case, we may be tempted to say that we have not one but two kinds of happiness which serve our two selves. Emotional well-being, we might say, is happiness in our experiences, and life satisfaction is happiness in our memories.


Ironically, far from from being a ‘holistic’ measure of happiness, life satisfaction turns out to be too narrow.


However, this separation between experience and memory is deeply misleading. Much of what we call ‘present experience’ is bound up with our memory, since we are always anticipating what happens next from what has come before. Insofar as ‘pure’ experience - being truly in the moment - is possible, it is only accessible through rigorous training (for instance through many months of meditation). Most of the time, indeed even when we are on holiday, we aren’t in this mindful state. Rather, we are- just as we usually are- making predictions and judgements about an uncertain future, and reminiscing on our past.

The experience/memory binary also disintegrates when we consider the role of our emotions. Although all our emotions are experienced in the present it doesn’t follow that they are all about the present. Some feelings are directed at the future (e. g. excitement) while others are directed at the past (e. g. regret). Memory, then, far from being distinct from experience, is a critical aspect of it. It cannot be subtracted from it.  

Another reason psychologists treat life satisfaction as a separate measure to emotional well-being is the implicit contrast we make between judgments and feelings. Since life satisfaction aims to survey the whole of our life, it seems to capture more of what we value than mere feelings. Feelings are fickle. Our overall happiness, on the other hand, can survive a bad day. As a result, what might otherwise be read as a difference in degree is often taken as a difference in kind. Since life satisfaction appears qualitatively different to a feeling (and so not part of emotional well-being), we consider it something more like a judgement.

However, this distinction is also deceiving. All feelings require judgements (albeit local ones) just as judgments require feelings. Since our feelings are responsive to specific events and objects, they give us information about the world. Each feeling highlights a particular feature of the world; anger focuses on injustice, fear on danger, sadness on loss, embarrassment on our social standing and so on. As we go about our day, we make frequent assessments of our life with their help. Emotional well-being, then, far from being a reductive measure of ‘what we feel and experience right now’ includes the use of our memory and judgement as well.  It encompasses all the feeling-judgements we make, including the feeling-judgement of life satisfaction.

Once we see that these distinctions fail, we can see what life satisfaction actually represents: just one kind of judgment (about our life as a whole rather than our life in parts) and one kind of feeling (satisfaction/dissatisfaction). Yet why should we privilege how we think about our life as a whole rather than how we think about it day by day? And why should we privilege satisfaction among many other positive emotions, like joy, excitement, connection, and flow? In the absence of compelling arguments explaining why satisfaction is qualitatively superior to all other feelings, we ought to look at a wider range of them. Ironically, far from from being a ‘holistic’ measure of happiness, life satisfaction turns out to be too narrow. Satisfaction is only one overvalued slice of a much larger emotional pie.


Crucially, while we are always happy in the moment, this doesn’t mean that we are always happy about that moment.


So, what is the alternative? If this traditional distinction between emotional well-being and life satisfaction doesn’t make sense, how should we understand happiness instead? The answer is straightforward. Our lives are just a succession of moments, and no moment is privileged above any other. We are happy when we experience any number of positive feeling-judgements in the moment, including the feeling-judgement of ‘life satisfaction’. Crucially, while we are always happy in the moment, this doesn’t mean that we are always happy about that moment. We can be happy about something in our past (i. e. being proud at our accomplishments), or in our future (i. e. being excited about an upcoming holiday). We also have positive feeling judgments that recur, creating the impression that they are more than momentary. Yet in both cases, we delude ourselves if we think that we can ever step outside of the present. When we strain for a more global perspective on our lives, it’s easy for us to lose sight of this simple fact. As the writer Annie Dillard memorably put it, ‘how we spend our days is, after all, how we spend our lives.’ The happiness of our days is all we ever have, yet this is more than what it seems. 

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