The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

Sunday Afternoon with Daniel Kahneman

“Nothing is as important as you think it is."

 

Daniel Kahneman

This past Sunday afternoon, December 19, 2010, the University of Michigan had its 2010 Winter Commencement, and the commencement speaker was Princeton University Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs Daniel Kahneman, recipient of the 2002 Nobel Award in Economics and an important contributor to all sorts of fields, including behavioral economics and the perspective of positive psychology.

The Winter Commencement is much smaller than the Spring Commencement. It is held in the basketball arena and is attended by several thousand family members and friends of graduates as opposed to the tens of thousands who come to the football stadium in May.

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But I like the smaller graduation ceremony more than the larger one precisely because it is smaller and more personal ... and certainly more convenient. Parking is not much of an issue, and neither are entrances nor exits. All Ph.D.s have their names called, and all degree recipients move across the stage and shake the hand of the Dean of their college, the University Provost, and/or the University President.

And I enjoyed the commencement speaker this December as much as I enjoyed the commencement speaker last May, which is saying something because the latter speaker was Barack Obama.

I do not personally know Professor Kahneman, although I have long followed and appreciated his work. This past semester, during my positive psychology course, I spoke about his ideas constantly, so much so that many of my students - when they heard that he would be the Winter Commencement speaker - became very excited and told me they planned to attend, even though it was not their own graduation.

After receiving an honorary degree, he spoke for about ten or fifteen minutes, and he did so in his typically wonderful way, meaning that he was clear and provocative and about the smartest person on the planet. To judge from his image on the Jumbotron above the stage, he also had a twinkle in his eye.

There was snow on the ground outside, and he started by discussing a study of life in Michigan versus life in California. Everyone, in Michigan and in California, believes that people are happier on the West Coast than in the Midwest because - after all - the weather is so much better. The audience chuckled. And as if we needed further convincing, he added to the audience still garbed in winter coats, gloves, and mufflers, "It really is better, you know."

But he went on to the punch line, which is that people in California are not happier than people in the Midwest. Weather may influence happiness, but whatever effects it may have are lost among all the other factors that influence happiness. People believe Californians to be happier when asked if they are, because the question leads them to focus on differences between California and the Midwest, and weather is an obvious difference. This phenomenon is called the focusing illusion and has broad applicability. When making comparative judgments, we are overly influenced by those things on which we focus - in this case weather.

To sum up the point, he said, "Nothing is as important as you think it is, at least when you are thinking about it." I was sitting next to a colleague, and upon hearing this one-sentence summary, we spontaneously turned toward one another, and each of us silently mouthed, "Wow."

The rest of his talk was about the experiencing self versus the remembering self, a distinction about which I have written, although he said it much better than I ever have. The happiness of each self matters, but they may have different determinants. The advice to the graduates (and to the rest of us) is to make appropriate choices about what we value and to behave accordingly. He summed up the differences tersely. To paraphrase: "The happiness of the remembering self is influenced by our achievements, and the happiness of the experiencing self is influenced by our positive emotions, which in turn result from other people."

To mention one more important idea of Professor Kahneman, what we remember about our good experiences is how they end. In the case of the University of Michigan December 2010 graduates, their college careers ended with a great commencement address by one of the most important thinkers of our time.

As for me, it was also a wonderful afternoon, as I experienced it and as I have remembered it.

 

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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