Is Anyone Happy?

three yellow happy face heads with bodies clapping

Happiness, Satisfaction, and Memory

Neliza Drew May 4·7 min read (originally published on Medium)

“If you’re happy and you know it, Clap your hands” by katerha is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Some time ago, (two days ago?) a writer tweeted a link to a story on Pocket. The more I read of this psychologist’s ideas, the more I wonder how much of his research is a result of his own lack of engagement with memory. As Livini reports it, Kahneman believes people value what he dubs “satisfaction” more than “happiness” and that part of that is because they see satisfaction as the result of building toward goals while happiness is fleeting and in the moment.

Livini explains it like this:

“The key here is memory. Satisfaction is retrospective. Happiness occurs in real time. In Kahneman’s work, he found that people tell themselves a story about their lives, which may or may not add up to a pleasing tale. Yet, our day-to-day experiences yield positive feelings that may not advance that longer story, necessarily. Memory is enduring. Feelings pass. Many of our happiest moments aren’t preserved — they’re not all caught on camera but just happen. And then they’re gone.”

Part of what feels controversial about these statements is that Kahneman is using a narrow, almost clinical, definition of words we know better from their connotations and the contexts when we use them. We say we have satisfaction when we’ve achieved something, yes, but many of us don’t think of our “happy times,” like fun with friends or trips with family as “an achievement.”

Because Kahneman links Satisfaction and “achievement” to memory, he assumes that anytime we access memories, we’re doing so as an act of “building” in a way that feels transactional the way he describes it.

“They actually want to maximize their satisfaction with themselves and with their lives. And that leads in completely different directions than the maximization of happiness.” (from the transcript of an interview on the Conversations With Tyler podcast)

This might be because he even admits to rarely reliving events or people via memory.

“But I do not consume my memories a lot. And I almost never go back to photographs, not deliberately. If I stumble on something, it will move me. But the idea of going back to relive a vacation — that’s not what I do, so I have little empathy for this.” (from the transcript of an interview on the Conversations With Tyler podcast)

Thus, he sees vacation as “investment in the formation and maintenance of memories,” which seems cynical and a bit sad, but better I suppose than the purely transactional take mentioned in Livini’s article:

Take going on vacation, for example. According to the psychologist, a person who knows they can go on a trip and have a good time but that their memories will be erased, and that they can’t take any photos, might choose not to go after all. The reason for this is that we do things in anticipation of creating satisfying memories to reflect on later. We’re somewhat less interested in actually having a good time.

This theory helps to explain our current social media-driven culture. To some extent, we care less about enjoying ourselves than presenting the appearance of an enviable existence. We’re preoccupied with quantifying friends and followers rather than spending time with people we like. And ultimately, this makes us miserable.”

The links help you decide to go on a social media detox and while those can work for those who are hampered by, distracted by, or enraged by their time on social sites.

But that still feels cynical, like looking for a reason to avoid the fun parts of living if they are only serving Happiness not Satisfaction and ignores people who derive happiness (whether his clinical definition or a more colloquial meaning) from memories and photographs.

This past year, so many of us have been unable to travel (or have been travel when it was unwise to do so). We’ve been unable to visit with friends and family and the who bring us happiness or Happiness. Many of us have relied on memories of better times to remind us that we have lived a life outside the four (more or less) of our homes, that we have people and places that make us feel whole, that give us colloquial satisfaction outside the “building toward” version Kahneman alludes to, though he sometimes appears to be referencing our “building” in a more holistic, “life worth living” way while in others it appears to be strictly in terms of career or social media engagement (though perhaps that’s more in Livini’s take).

“We’re preoccupied with quantifying friends and followers rather than spending time with people we like.” — Ephrat Livini

My initial reaction, especially to this idea of quantifying likes rather than enjoying ourselves, was a bit of a sigh. It reeks of assumptions about Millennials, the thirty-somethings with careers and kids who are still so often maligned by older writers looking to deride “youth culture” they don’t want to understand. And honestly, Livini (at 49) should know better. Then again, she doesn’t specifically mention a generation so maybe she’s thinking of Zoomers or of her own issues with “doing it for the ‘Gram.”

Maybe my initial resistance to this notion is my own relationship to Instagram. I’m a fan and I was dismayed when FB bought it because FB is consistently awful in numerous ways (that’s a whole essay and then some alone) and it keeps introducing new versions of algorithms that do nothing to enhance experience with the app. That said, perhaps my most frequent viewer of my own Insta is myself.

ADHD and memory have a tricky relationship and my memory is no different. I can have an absurd level of recall for completely useless information. When we watch Jeopardy, my husband frequently asks “How did you know that?” The answer is often either “I have no earthly idea; stuff just gets in there” or the real answer is a tangle of semi-related events, topics, things I read somewhere, and whatever magic linked them. (I sometimes try to explain the tangle, but mostly just shrug because I don’t even always understand the tangle.)

I also often have perfect recall of specific places (but not necessarily where they were, when I was there, or how I got here). Like, if I were a better (and more patient) artist, I could sketch some bog or campsite or building, but not necessarily remember where it was. The husband and I often fill each other’s blanks on this, but when we can’t (or he’s busy/not around), I head to Instagram.

Could I dig through my whole hard drives full of photos? Yes. Would that take so long, I’d forget what I was looking for, why, and what day of the week it is? Yes. I occasionally go through the photo files and pull out the most aesthetic or artistic to keep in one place and label the rest with months, years, or events. And recent devices do a much better of helping with that by coding the date into filenames. (Whoever thought that wasn’t a good idea all those years ago?) Still, it’s far easier to scroll through IG and have hashtags or a location to go by.

My initial attraction to Instagram, though, was the visual element. As I wrote about before, I have had a love of photography for decades. It was a place to share photography without the hurdles of monetizing (or trying to) a passion. It wasn’t meant to build likes or followers or amass a following leading to career Satisfaction. It was a place to put pictures that was a bit easier than Flickr. Somewhere I still have a Flickr account, but for whatever reason, that platform always required a few extra steps that my ADHD equated with “work.” Not “career building” so much as “too many steps to accomplish without having to think about the steps.” (That’s the executive dysfunction aspect of ADHD making an appearance. I do fine with things that are actually work, but things that do not make money but feel like work often get ignored. See also: My issues with writing regularly.)

I don’t see taking pictures as “an end” or that “building toward” and sometimes they don’t serve memory actively. Photography, for me, is a fun activity unto itself, even if I never share the photos. And as I get older, I know when to put the camera down and enjoy the moment, experience the other Happiness because the camera cannot capture the moment. Perhaps this is also because I so often do not shoot (with a camera) people so much as objects, the tighter the shot the better. For me, they serve my memory, but for others, it’s just a flower or a bug or the rusty bolt on junk. Others may or may not appreciate the artistic aspect (but mostly they don’t and that’s fine).

I shoot photos of animals, which are adorable, but also “ugly” things, abstracted things, aging and dilapidated things, and odd things. This is one reason I miss film photography so much. Flowers feel right in full digital color, but abandoned buildings seem to prefer the misty, unpredictable qualities bestowed by my old Chinese knockoff medium format with the dirty fixed-focus lens. Yes, one could recreate that affect in Photoshop, but that feels like cheating to me. In some ways, it also feels like mimicking a stutter or limp, like trying to harness what makes another unique or another’s struggles as a gimmick.

Now I sound like Tori Amos and the way she talks about her pianos and the muses. The way they work together to find songs rather than writing them outright.

In a way, though, that’s what it feels like to shoot with film. You apply your knowledge of composition and light and the technical aspects of the camera but you let the camera play its role.

In other words, a form of play, in a way, a “hanging out with friends,” that acts as Happiness rather than the kind of scorekeeping Kahneman and Livini associate with Satisfaction.

Maybe the takeaway is that we have to decide what is and isn’t working for us, however we decide to define words like “happiness” and “satisfaction.” We have to decide if our memories serve us in positive or negative ways, and if we are refusing to access our memories (of people and places rather than recall of information), is it because we are avoiding something or because we derive no pleasure in reflection.