Kahneman describes how when he became interested in the study of well-being, most information about the subject came from the answer to this question or some variation of it: “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life these days?” This question is directed to the remembering self, but Kahneman proposed that people should focus instead on the well-being of the experiencing self.
This question, as we have already learned, plays into System 1’s inherent tendency to substitute easier questions for a complicated question like global happiness. Thus, it makes sense that Kahneman might be skeptical of how we answer a question that also asks us to evaluate our global experiences simply by remembering them.
Kahneman and a team of psychologists developed a method to measure well-being of the experiencing self. They asked participants (all women) in their study to relive the previous day in detail (a method that they called the Day Reconstruction Method or DRM), answering questions about each “episode” of the day and rating the intensity of different feelings on a scale.
The DRM method aims to combat the biases that we experience when we remember events in our lives (the peak-end rule and duration neglect). Instead of asking us to remember events years or months in the past, it aims to collect people’s day-to-day experiences as they happen.
The study found that long episodes counted more than shorter episodes when considering a day as a whole. And even though there were many positive and negative emotions in a given episode, one could classify most moments in life as ultimately positive or negative. They found that American women spent about 19% of the time in an unpleasant state (a measure called the U-index), compared to 16% for French women and 14% for Danish women.
The results of the study show the tendencies we have in evaluating our lives. In our constant quest to make sense of the world and ourselves, we label experiences as ultimately positive or negative despite the fact that we might experience many complex emotions about a given event—a product of System 1’s tendency to simplify.
The study also found significant inequality in emotional pain. About half of the participants reported going through an entire day without an unpleasant episode, but a significant minority experienced considerable distress for much of the day. A U-index—the proportion of time that people spend in a negative emotional state—can also be computed for activities. The U-index was higher by about 6% on weekdays than weekends, for example.
The fact that there might be a significant inequality in emotional pain actually makes sense, given much of Kahneman’s other findings. If we have positive feelings about our lives as a whole, we are more likely to find positive events to corroborate that belief (a feature of the confirmation bias).
Kahneman found that our emotional state is largely determined by what we focus on. If we are in love, we may be happy even when in traffic. To get pleasure from eating, we have to notice that we are doing so. These observations imply that while we cannot change our disposition, we can spend less or more time focusing on the things that we enjoy doing with people we like.
Measures of experienced well-being can be compared with the judgments people make when they make global evaluations of their lives. More education is associated with a higher life evaluation, but not with greater well-being. Children lessen experienced well-being, but the adverse effects on life evaluation are smaller. Religion positively impacts well-being but not life evaluation. In terms of money, being rich may greatly enhance life evaluation but does not improve experienced well-being. This implies that life satisfaction is not a flawed measure of experienced well-being—it is simply a different measure altogether.
Experienced well-being and global life satisfaction are simply different measures of happiness based on two ways that we experience our lives. Even though experienced well-being is driven by emotions, it is slightly more objective in that it happens more frequently and is based on ratings on a scale. Life evaluation, however, is much more subjective and dependent on which parts of our lives we think of when we evaluate it and our memories of different experiences.