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Annotated captions of Daniel Kahneman: The riddle of experience vs. memory in English

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tedtalks 00:00
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Everybody talks about happiness these days.

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I had somebody count the number of books

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with "happiness" in the title published in the last five years

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and they gave up after about 40, and there were many more.

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There is a huge wave of interest in happiness,

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among researchers.

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There is a lot of happiness coaching.

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Everybody would like to make people happier.

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But in spite of all this flood of work,

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there are several cognitive traps

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that sort of make it almost impossible to think straight

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about happiness.

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And my talk today will be mostly about these cognitive traps.

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This applies to laypeople thinking about their own happiness,

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and it applies to scholars thinking about happiness,

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because it turns out we're just as messed up as anybody else is.

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The first of these traps

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is a reluctance to admit complexity.

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It turns out that the word "happiness"

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is just not a useful word anymore,

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because we apply it to too many different things.

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I think there is one particular meaning to which we might restrict it,

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but by and large,

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this is something that we'll have to give up

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and we'll have to adopt the more complicated view

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of what well-being is.

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The second trap is a confusion between experience and memory;

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basically, it's between being happy in your life,

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and being happy about your life

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or happy with your life.

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And those are two very different concepts,

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and they're both lumped in the notion of happiness.

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And the third is the focusing illusion,

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and it's the unfortunate fact that we can't think about any circumstance

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that affects well-being

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without distorting its importance.

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I mean, this is a real cognitive trap.

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There's just no way of getting it right.

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Now, I'd like to start with an example

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of somebody who had a question-and-answer session

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after one of my lectures reported a story,

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and that was a story --

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He said he'd been listening to a symphony,

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and it was absolutely glorious music

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and at the very end of the recording,

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there was a dreadful screeching sound.

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And then he added, really quite emotionally,

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it ruined the whole experience.

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But it hadn't.

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What it had ruined were the memories of the experience.

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He had had the experience.

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He had had 20 minutes of glorious music.

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They counted for nothing

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because he was left with a memory;

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the memory was ruined,

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and the memory was all that he had gotten to keep.

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What this is telling us, really,

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is that we might be thinking of ourselves and of other people

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in terms of two selves.

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There is an experiencing self,

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who lives in the present

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and knows the present,

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is capable of re-living the past,

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but basically it has only the present.

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It's the experiencing self that the doctor approaches --

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you know, when the doctor asks,

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"Does it hurt now when I touch you here?"

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And then there is a remembering self,

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and the remembering self is the one that keeps score,

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and maintains the story of our life,

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and it's the one that the doctor approaches

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in asking the question,

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"How have you been feeling lately?"

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or "How was your trip to Albania?" or something like that.

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Those are two very different entities,

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the experiencing self and the remembering self,

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and getting confused between them is part of the mess

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about the notion of happiness.

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03:37

Now, the remembering self

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is a storyteller.

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And that really starts with a basic response of our memories --

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it starts immediately.

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We don't only tell stories when we set out to tell stories.

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Our memory tells us stories,

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that is, what we get to keep from our experiences

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is a story.

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And let me begin with one example.

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This is an old study.

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Those are actual patients undergoing a painful procedure.

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I won't go into detail. It's no longer painful these days,

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but it was painful when this study was run in the 1990s.

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They were asked to report on their pain every 60 seconds.

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Here are two patients,

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those are their recordings.

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And you are asked, "Who of them suffered more?"

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And it's a very easy question.

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Clearly, Patient B suffered more --

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his colonoscopy was longer,

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and every minute of pain that Patient A had,

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Patient B had, and more.

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But now there is another question:

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"How much did these patients think they suffered?"

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And here is a surprise.

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The surprise is that Patient A

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had a much worse memory of the colonoscopy

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than Patient B.

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The stories of the colonoscopies were different,

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and because a very critical part of the story is how it ends.

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And neither of these stories is very inspiring or great --

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but one of them is this distinct ... (Laughter)

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but one of them is distinctly worse than the other.

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And the one that is worse

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is the one where pain was at its peak at the very end;

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it's a bad story.

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How do we know that?

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Because we asked these people after their colonoscopy,

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and much later, too,

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"How bad was the whole thing, in total?"

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And it was much worse for A than for B, in memory.

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Now this is a direct conflict

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between the experiencing self and the remembering self.

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From the point of view of the experiencing self,

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clearly, B had a worse time.

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Now, what you could do with Patient A,

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and we actually ran clinical experiments,

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and it has been done, and it does work --

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you could actually extend the colonoscopy of Patient A

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by just keeping the tube in without jiggling it too much.

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That will cause the patient

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to suffer, but just a little

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and much less than before.

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And if you do that for a couple of minutes,

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you have made the experiencing self

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of Patient A worse off,

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and you have the remembering self of Patient A

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a lot better off,

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because now you have endowed Patient A

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with a better story

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about his experience.

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What defines a story?

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And that is true of the stories

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that memory delivers for us,

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and it's also true of the stories that we make up.

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What defines a story are changes,

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significant moments and endings.

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Endings are very, very important

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and, in this case, the ending dominated.

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06:46

Now, the experiencing self

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lives its life continuously.

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It has moments of experience, one after the other.

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And you can ask: What happens to these moments?

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And the answer is really straightforward:

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They are lost forever.

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I mean, most of the moments of our life --

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and I calculated, you know, the psychological present

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is said to be about three seconds long;

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that means that, you know,

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in a life there are about 600 million of them;

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in a month, there are about 600,000 --

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most of them don't leave a trace.

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Most of them are completely ignored

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by the remembering self.

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And yet, somehow you get the sense

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that they should count,

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that what happens during these moments of experience

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is our life.

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It's the finite resource that we're spending

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while we're on this earth.

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And how to spend it

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would seem to be relevant,

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but that is not the story

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that the remembering self keeps for us.

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So we have the remembering self

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and the experiencing self,

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and they're really quite distinct.

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The biggest difference between them

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is in the handling of time.

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From the point of view of the experiencing self,

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if you have a vacation,

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and the second week is just as good as the first,

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then the two-week vacation

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is twice as good as the one-week vacation.

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That's not the way it works at all for the remembering self.

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For the remembering self, a two-week vacation

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is barely better than the one-week vacation

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because there are no new memories added.

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You have not changed the story.

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And in this way,

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time is actually the critical variable

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that distinguishes a remembering self

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from an experiencing self;

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time has very little impact on the story.

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Now, the remembering self does more

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than remember and tell stories.

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It is actually the one that makes decisions

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because, if you have a patient who has had, say,

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two colonoscopies with two different surgeons

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and is deciding which of them to choose,

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then the one that chooses

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is the one that has the memory that is less bad,

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and that's the surgeon that will be chosen.

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The experiencing self

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has no voice in this choice.

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We actually don't choose between experiences,

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we choose between memories of experiences.

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And even when we think about the future,

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we don't think of our future normally as experiences.

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We think of our future

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as anticipated memories.

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And basically you can look at this,

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you know, as a tyranny of the remembering self,

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and you can think of the remembering self

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sort of dragging the experiencing self

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through experiences that

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the experiencing self doesn't need.

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I have that sense that

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when we go on vacations

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this is very frequently the case;

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that is, we go on vacations,

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to a very large extent,

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in the service of our remembering self.

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And this is a bit hard to justify I think.

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I mean, how much do we consume our memories?

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That is one of the explanations

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that is given for the dominance

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of the remembering self.

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And when I think about that, I think about a vacation

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we had in Antarctica a few years ago,

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which was clearly the best vacation I've ever had,

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and I think of it relatively often,

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relative to how much I think of other vacations.

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And I probably have consumed

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my memories of that three-week trip, I would say,

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for about 25 minutes in the last four years.

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Now, if I had ever opened the folder

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with the 600 pictures in it,

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I would have spent another hour.

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Now, that is three weeks,

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and that is at most an hour and a half.

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There seems to be a discrepancy.

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Now, I may be a bit extreme, you know,

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in how little appetite I have for consuming memories,

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but even if you do more of this,

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there is a genuine question:

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Why do we put so much weight on memory

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relative to the weight that we put on experiences?

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So I want you to think

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about a thought experiment.

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Imagine that for your next vacation,

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you know that at the end of the vacation

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all your pictures will be destroyed,

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and you'll get an amnesic drug

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so that you won't remember anything.

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Now, would you choose the same vacation? (Laughter)

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And if you would choose a different vacation,

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there is a conflict between your two selves,

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and you need to think about how to adjudicate that conflict,

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and it's actually not at all obvious, because

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if you think in terms of time,

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then you get one answer,

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and if you think in terms of memories,

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you might get another answer.

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Why do we pick the vacations we do

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is a problem that confronts us

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with a choice between the two selves.

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Now, the two selves

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bring up two notions of happiness.

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There are really two concepts of happiness

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that we can apply, one per self.

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So you can ask: How happy is the experiencing self?

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And then you would ask: How happy are the moments

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in the experiencing self's life?

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And they're all -- happiness for moments

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is a fairly complicated process.

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What are the emotions that can be measured?

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And, by the way, now we are capable

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of getting a pretty good idea

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of the happiness of the experiencing self over time.

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If you ask for the happiness of the remembering self,

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it's a completely different thing.

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This is not about how happily a person lives.

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It is about how satisfied or pleased the person is

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when that person thinks about her life.

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Very different notion.

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Anyone who doesn't distinguish those notions

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is going to mess up the study of happiness,

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and I belong to a crowd of students of well-being,

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who've been messing up the study of happiness for a long time

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in precisely this way.

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The distinction between the

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happiness of the experiencing self

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and the satisfaction of the remembering self

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has been recognized in recent years,

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and there are now efforts to measure the two separately.

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The Gallup Organization has a world poll

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where more than half a million people

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have been asked questions

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about what they think of their life

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and about their experiences,

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and there have been other efforts along those lines.

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So in recent years, we have begun to learn

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about the happiness of the two selves.

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And the main lesson I think that we have learned

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is they are really different.

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You can know how satisfied somebody is with their life,

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and that really doesn't teach you much

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about how happily they're living their life,

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and vice versa.

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Just to give you a sense of the correlation,

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the correlation is about .5.

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What that means is if you met somebody,

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and you were told, "Oh his father is six feet tall,"

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how much would you know about his height?

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Well, you would know something about his height,

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14:00

but there's a lot of uncertainty.

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You have that much uncertainty.

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14:06

If I tell you that somebody ranked their life eight on a scale of ten,

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you have a lot of uncertainty

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about how happy they are

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with their experiencing self.

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So the correlation is low.

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14:17

We know something about what controls

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satisfaction of the happiness self.

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We know that money is very important,

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goals are very important.

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We know that happiness is mainly

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being satisfied with people that we like,

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spending time with people that we like.

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There are other pleasures, but this is dominant.

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So if you want to maximize the happiness of the two selves,

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you are going to end up

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doing very different things.

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The bottom line of what I've said here

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is that we really should not think of happiness

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as a substitute for well-being.

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14:53

It is a completely different notion.

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14:56

Now, very quickly,

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another reason we cannot think straight about happiness

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is that we do not attend to the same things

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when we think about life, and we actually live.

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So, if you ask the simple question of how happy people are in California,

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you are not going to get to the correct answer.

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When you ask that question,

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you think people must be happier in California

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if, say, you live in Ohio.

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15:26

(Laughter)

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15:29

And what happens is

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when you think about living in California,

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you are thinking of the contrast

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15:38

between California and other places,

tedtalks 15:38
15:40

and that contrast, say, is in climate.

tedtalks 15:40
15:42

Well, it turns out that climate

tedtalks 15:42
15:45

is not very important to the experiencing self

tedtalks 15:45
15:48

and it's not even very important to the reflective self

tedtalks 15:48
15:51

that decides how happy people are.

tedtalks 15:51
15:55

But now, because the reflective self is in charge,

tedtalks 15:55
15:57

you may end up -- some people may end up

tedtalks 15:57
15:59

moving to California.

tedtalks 15:59
16:02

And it's sort of interesting to trace what is going to happen

tedtalks 16:02
16:05

to people who move to California in the hope of getting happier.

tedtalks 16:05
16:07

Well, their experiencing self

tedtalks 16:07
16:09

is not going to get happier.

tedtalks 16:09
16:11

We know that.

tedtalks 16:12
16:15

But one thing will happen: They will think they are happier,

tedtalks 16:15
16:19

because, when they think about it,

tedtalks 16:19
16:23

they'll be reminded of how horrible the weather was in Ohio,

tedtalks 16:23
16:26

and they will feel they made the right decision.

tedtalks 16:26
16:28

It is very difficult

tedtalks 16:28
16:30

to think straight about well-being,

tedtalks 16:30
16:33

and I hope I have given you a sense

tedtalks 16:33
16:35

of how difficult it is.

tedtalks 16:35
16:37

Thank you.

tedtalks 16:37
16:40

(Applause)

tedtalks 16:40
16:43

Chris Anderson: Thank you. I've got a question for you.

tedtalks 16:44
16:46

Thank you so much.

tedtalks 16:46
16:50

Now, when we were on the phone a few weeks ago,

tedtalks 16:50
16:53

you mentioned to me that there was quite an interesting result

tedtalks 16:53
16:55

came out of that Gallup survey.

tedtalks 16:55
16:57

Is that something you can share

tedtalks 16:57
16:59

since you do have a few moments left now?

tedtalks 16:59
17:01

Daniel Kahneman: Sure.

tedtalks 17:01
17:04

I think the most interesting result that we found in the Gallup survey

tedtalks 17:04
17:07

is a number, which we absolutely did not expect to find.

tedtalks 17:07
17:09

We found that with respect to the happiness

tedtalks 17:09
17:12

of the experiencing self.

tedtalks 17:12
17:17

When we looked at how feelings,

tedtalks 17:17
17:19

vary with income.

tedtalks 17:19
17:22

And it turns out that, below an income

tedtalks 17:22
17:25

of 60,000 dollars a year, for Americans --

tedtalks 17:25
17:28

and that's a very large sample of Americans, like 600,000,

tedtalks 17:28
17:30

so it's a large representative sample --

tedtalks 17:30
17:32

below an income of 600,000 dollars a year...

tedtalks 17:32
17:34

CA: 60,000.

tedtalks 17:34
17:36

DK: 60,000.

tedtalks 17:36
17:38

(Laughter)

tedtalks 17:38
17:42

60,000 dollars a year, people are unhappy,

tedtalks 17:42
17:45

and they get progressively unhappier the poorer they get.

tedtalks 17:45
17:48

Above that, we get an absolutely flat line.

tedtalks 17:48
17:51

I mean I've rarely seen lines so flat.

tedtalks 17:51
17:53

Clearly, what is happening is

tedtalks 17:53
17:56

money does not buy you experiential happiness,

tedtalks 17:56
17:59

but lack of money certainly buys you misery,

tedtalks 17:59
18:01

and we can measure that misery

tedtalks 18:01
18:03

very, very clearly.

tedtalks 18:03
18:06

In terms of the other self, the remembering self,

tedtalks 18:06
18:08

you get a different story.

tedtalks 18:08
18:11

The more money you earn, the more satisfied you are.

tedtalks 18:11
18:13

That does not hold for emotions.

tedtalks 18:13
18:16

CA: But Danny, the whole American endeavor is about

tedtalks 18:16
18:19

life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.

tedtalks 18:19
18:23

If people took seriously that finding,

tedtalks 18:23
18:26

I mean, it seems to turn upside down

tedtalks 18:26
18:28

everything we believe about, like for example,

tedtalks 18:28
18:30

taxation policy and so forth.

tedtalks 18:30
18:33

Is there any chance that politicians, that the country generally,

tedtalks 18:33
18:36

would take a finding like that seriously

tedtalks 18:36
18:38

and run public policy based on it?

tedtalks 18:38
18:40

DK: You know I think that there is recognition

tedtalks 18:40
18:43

of the role of happiness research in public policy.

tedtalks 18:43
18:45

The recognition is going to be slow in the United States,

tedtalks 18:45
18:47

no question about that,

tedtalks 18:47
18:49

but in the U.K., it is happening,

tedtalks 18:49
18:51

and in other countries it is happening.

tedtalks 18:51
18:54

People are recognizing that they ought

tedtalks 18:54
18:56

to be thinking of happiness

tedtalks 18:56
18:58

when they think of public policy.

tedtalks 18:58
19:00

It's going to take a while,

tedtalks 19:00
19:03

and people are going to debate

tedtalks 19:03
19:05

whether they want to study experience happiness,

tedtalks 19:05
19:07

or whether they want to study life evaluation,

tedtalks 19:07
19:10

so we need to have that debate fairly soon.

tedtalks 19:10
19:12

How to enhance happiness

tedtalks 19:12
19:15

goes very different ways depending on how you think,

tedtalks 19:15
19:17

and whether you think of the remembering self

tedtalks 19:17
19:19

or you think of the experiencing self.

tedtalks 19:19
19:22

This is going to influence policy, I think, in years to come.

tedtalks 19:22
19:25

In the United States, efforts are being made

tedtalks 19:25
19:28

to measure the experience happiness of the population.

tedtalks 19:28
19:31

This is going to be, I think, within the next decade or two,

tedtalks 19:31
19:33

part of national statistics.

tedtalks 19:33
19:37

CA: Well, it seems to me that this issue will -- or at least should be --

tedtalks 19:37
19:39

the most interesting policy discussion to track

tedtalks 19:39
19:41

over the next few years.

tedtalks 19:41
19:43

Thank you so much for inventing behavioral economics.

tedtalks 19:43
19:45

Thank you, Danny Kahneman.