What We Mean When We Talk About Happiness

Happiness according to Google trends: 2004 to present

Searches for the word “happiness” according to Google trends: 2004 to present (U.S. only)

According to Google Trends, searches for the term “happiness” have been on the rise, sometimes quite dramatically, since they started tracking inquiries in 2004. There are more books, blogs, and videos about the subject than any one person could reasonably consume. But the subject of whether we are actually becoming any happier remains in doubt.

Our careers and lives are largely structured around preconceived achievements and milestones, both recognized and invisible, things like promotions, relationships, salaries, and material possessions. Yet for many people, achieving these things doesn’t necessarily lead to feelings of happiness. Why is it that when we reach certain goals or milestones, we don’t always feel happy? According to Danny Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner in economics who studies the psychology of judgment and decision making, it has to do with a subtle difference between two related feelings that comprise what we term happiness: life satisfaction and emotional well-being.

Emotional well-being is how you feel about your life in the moment, as you are experiencing it – the experiencing self. Your level of emotional happiness is primarily influenced by genetics, and Kahneman estimates that it is as pre-determined as height (according to an article in Scientific American, about 20 to 40 percent of the height difference between individuals can be attributed to environmental conditions, mainly nutrition).

Life satisfaction is how you feel about your life when you’re thinking about it – the remembering self. It fluctuates relative to how you measure up to your goals. The remembering self is largely driven by a desire to create memories, not experiences. The creation of memories is the primary reason we do things, and the future is an anticipated memory. We “consume” those memories, thinking back on them and sharing them, long after the experience itself is over.

Goal-oriented thinking is a dominant element of career and job narratives, so this has some interesting implications for work-related decisions. Perhaps this is why, according to Kahneman, “life satisfaction is very important to people. In fact, I think people do more to achieve satisfaction than they do to achieve happiness.” We are taught that we must have goals, preferably multiple ones. People without specific goals – or who have goals that focus on a feeling rather than an achievement – are often perceived to be unambitious and unfocused. But goals can trip us up too, particularly if we focus on them to the exclusion of our emotional well-being. Leo Babauta, author of zenhabits.net, suggests dispensing with goals altogether. Among other reasons, he cites the following: “Goals (wanting to improve) are not consistent with contentment (being happy with where you are).” He goes on:

How does this work? Instead of working with a fixed outcome (goal), work from moment to moment, using principles that work for you. Each moment, don’t ask “am I doing something to move me to my goal?” but instead ask, “Am I doing something right now that’s based on one of my values or principles?”

This suggests that goals and emotional well-being are opposites. I don’t think that’s the case, although sometimes it can feel that way. Steph pointed out that this is because of the difficulty, and maybe the impossibility, of setting goals for ourselves that are personally meaningful while also being independent of family and society expectations. That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing we can do to satisfy both our remembering self and our experiencing self, though. Kahneman’s advice? “We know money is very important and goals are very important. We know that happiness is mainly being satisfied with people that we like, spending time with people that we like. There are other pleasures, but this is dominant. So if you want to maximize the happiness of the two selves, you are going to do very different things… We should think of living, not only of remembering… Pick the right goals, pick goals that you can meet, and spend a lot of time with friends.”

Listen to an interview with Danny Kahneman here.


  1. Meredith Watts

    In the book “The Imperfectionists” by Tom Rachman, a woman who is terminally ill is being interviewed in advance for her obituary. She says, (I’m paraphrasing) death is misunderstood — the loss of one’s own life is no loss at all to the person dying, it is just the cessation of experience.

    Then she says, “What I really fear is time. That’s the devil: whipping us on when we’d rather loll, so the present sprints by, impossible to grasp and all is suddenly past . . . .” I interpret this to mean that time is flying by so fast that it’s hard to lay down solid memories.

    She quotes Heraclitus’s famous line: ‘No man steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.’ then says, “That’s quite right: We enjoy this illusion of continuity, and we call it memory. Which explains, perhaps, why our worst fear isn’t the end of life but the end of memories . . . ”

    I completely agree. Which is why dementia is worse than dying, in my opinion.


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