Nobel winner Kahneman explains happiness

This past Wednesday, in front of a packed audience at Davies Auditorium, Princeton professor and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman posed a question that may cross many students’ minds as they brave this bitter Northeastern winter: are Californians really happier?

Kahneman discussed this question and other topics related to human happiness throughout Wednesday’s lecture.

During the speech, Kahneman argued there is a strong difference between remembering events and experiencing them, and that people’s memories of events matter more than their actual experiences. He also discussed relative happiness, saying that changes in situation affect people’s short-term happiness, but not their long-term happiness.

“Most Californians don’t think about being in California, and especially don’t think about being in Connecticut in a snow storm,” Kahneman said.

A beginning segment of the lecture focused on an experiment studying the levels of pain people endure during colonoscopies. Patients who had shorter examinations that ended with sharp pain said they remembered more pain than those who had longer examinations that ended with less pain, Kahneman said. He explained that such experiments point to the astounding power of memory — an experience itself holds little import when compared to one’s memory of the event. Kahneman gave another example: when a piece of music is abruptly cut off, people feel it is “ruined” because their memory of the music is ruined.

Kahneman then showed the audience a study of college graduates’ desire for money and satisfaction. During the subjects’ freshman year in college, they were asked whether or not they wanted to have money when they got older. The researchers found a strong correlation between people’s desire to have money and their ability to get it. But, surprisingly, getting money did not change most of the subjects’ levels of satisfaction. The results showed that a transition brings about long-range changes in satisfaction, but once a situation is stable, people’s relative happiness returns to its previous state.

To demonstrate this point, Kahneman presented a slide that showed widows’ happiness before, directly after and long after their spouses died. The widows returned to slightly below their previous level of happiness.

Kahneman used all of these examples to facilitate a discussion of different scales of happiness. Someone measuring happiness could place sex at the highest degree and being with one’s boss at the lowest degree, he explained.

“The only thing worse than commuting to work alone is being with your boss,” Kahneman said.

When rating levels of happiness in different relationships, Kaheneman informed the audience that people rated friendships significantly higher than relationships with family or spouses,.

He told the audience that his research field, “positive psychology,” has recently gained ground. He believes it will take off more within the next decade.

Santosh Anagol GRD ’09, who is studying economics, said the lecture was “well thought-out.”

“[It] attacked an important issue from an economic perspective in that consumption doesn’t guarantee happiness,” Anagol said.

Peter McHenry GRD ’09, also an economics student, said he enjoyed Kahneman’s presentation.

“I liked how he presented the lecture as questions rather than answers,” McHenry said.

In 2002, Kahneman won the Noble Prize in economic sciences for his research on decision-making under uncertainty, which integrated psychological research into economic science.