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What Kind of Happiness Do People Value Most?


Nov. 16, 2018 Harvard Business Review

Sure, everyone wants to be happy. But what kind of happiness do people want? Is it happiness experienced moment-to-moment? Or is it being able to look back and remember a time as happy? Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman described this distinction as “being happy in your life” versus “being happy about your life.”  Take a moment to ask yourself, which happiness are you seeking?

This might seem like a needless delineation; after all, a time experienced as happy is often also remembered as happy. An evening spent with good friends over good food and wine will be experienced and remembered happily. Similarly, an interesting project staffed with one’s favorite colleagues will be fun to work on and look back on.

But the two don’t always go hand in hand. A weekend spent relaxing in front of the TV will be experienced as happy in the moment, but that time won’t be memorable and may even usher feelings of guilt in hindsight. A day at the zoo with one’s young children may involve many frustrating moments, but a singular moment of delight will make that day a happy memory. A week of late nights stuck at the office, while not fun exactly, will make one feel satisfied in hindsight, if it results in a major achievement.

While happiness scholars have long grappled with which form of happiness should be measured and pursued, nobody has simply asked people which version of happiness they seek. But if we want to find ways to be happy, it may help to understand what type of happiness we truly want.

In a series of studies, recently published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, we directly asked thousands of people (ages 18 to 81) about their preference between experienced and remembered happiness. We found that people’s preferences differed according to the length of time they were considering — and according to their culture. For Westerners, the happiness most people said they wanted for the next day was different from the happiness they said they wanted for their lifetime, even though one’s days add up to one’s life. We found this interesting; if people make decisions by the hour, they may end up with a different version of happiness than what they say they want for their life.

In one study, we asked 1,145 Americans to choose between experienced happiness (“where you experience happiness on a moment-to-moment basis”) and remembered happiness (“where afterwards you will reflect back and feel happy”) for either a longer timeframe (i.e., their life overall or next year) or a shorter timeframe (i.e., their next day or hour). The majority of participants chose experienced happiness over remembered happiness when choosing for their life (79%) or their next year (65%). By contrast, there was a roughly even split of participants who chose experienced happiness and remembered happiness when choosing what they wanted for their next hour (49%) or day (48%).  This pattern of results was not affected by individuals’ overall happiness, impulsivity, age, household income, marital status, or parental status.

After participants made their choices, we asked them to write a short paragraph explaining why. We found that those who favored experienced happiness mostly expressed a belief in carpe diem: a philosophy that one should seize the present moment because the future is uncertain and life is short. On the other hand, participants’ explanations for choosing remembered happiness ranged from a desire for a longer lasting happiness, to a nostalgic treasuring of memories, to the motivation to achieve in order to feel productive and proud.

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