I was walking down the street recently with my 7 year old son, for no apparent reason he started skipping.
I think he might have been humming too. I was struck by this spontaneous expression of joy. It got me thinking about why I stopped skipping?
Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate for his work on behavioural economics, suggests we have two distinct ways of approaching happiness: through an experiencing self and a narrative self. The experiencing self is responsible for in-the-moment feelings of joy or of being ‘in flow’. The narrative self is focused on the memories we have or the evaluations we make. Happiness, for the narrative self, is seen as being synonymous with our level of life satisfaction, or with our success. Put simply, it’s the difference between direct and indirect happiness; between being happy in our life and being happy with our life. And there is very little correlation between the two
It strikes me that as we grow up, the balance shifts from directly experiencing our lives to building our narratives; from joy to satisfaction; from play to work. Research in neuropsychology by Norman Farb has supported this. Farb and his colleagues found that the experiencing and narrative selves are supported by entirely different neural networks. They found the narrative self to be so dominant, they referred to it as the ‘default network’
It is the narrative self that is responsible for building the story of our life, but also for the intellectual flotsam and jetsam flowing through our consciousness and distracting us from direct experience: worries, plans, day-dreams and ruminations
Why does our balance get shifted so strongly? It turns out our narrative self is based in the same brain regions we use for decision making: the pre-frontal cortex and the hippocampus. The narrative self interprets our experience and stores it as memory. It is these interpretations or memories that are the basis of our decision making. What this means is that we very seldom choose experiences, but the memories or stories we expect those experiences to generate. We choose experiences which are consistent with the kind of person we think we are or with what we want to achieve
The ‘present’ from a psychological perspective, lasts about 3 seconds. This is the total domain of the experiencing self. It could also be described as our total lives – these 3 seconds, collectively, are all we’ll ever experience. Yet, our choices are so strongly biased towards narrative, indirect experience, we are driven to make decisions – big or small – that keep us from really being in the moment. On the one hand we prioritize the rational and the sensible, to lead us toward what we want to achieve. On the other, we put ourselves through extreme experiences on holiday or nights out because these help us tell an interesting story to reinforce our image of ourselves
As a child, having little control over our lives, we focus all our attention on making the most of the experiences our parents dictate for us. As we grow up, we decide how we’ll do today, this year and this decade. We choose how to spend our life. What seems a terrible shame is that the very process of making these decisions leads many of us to spend our lives focused on building the narrative at the expense of living the experience, on indirect satisfaction rather than direct happiness. Through our decisions we opt for a life outside of our 3 second window
So we stop skipping
Note: I used David Rock’s ‘narrative self’ rather than Daniel Kahneman’s ‘remembering self’)