Earlier this spring I read, and very much enjoyed, Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness . Despite what the title might sound like, it's not a self-help book. And, to tell you the truth, it's not really about happiness. It's actually about what makes us unhappy. In particular, it's about why we are often so poor at predicting what will make us happy.
The answer, it turns out, has a lot to do with our memories and, especially, the fragile, even malleable nature of our memories.
I don't know about you, but I tend to think of memory as something akin to a video camera, silently recording all of our experiences. It might be hard to access some of those files, and perhaps the "film quality" is degraded over time, but it's all there. Which would explain why we can often recall extremely vivid memories from years earlier, right?
Except that's not how memory works at all. The common challenge I mentioned - accessing all those files - points to the problem itself: there's no way we'd have enough room in our brains to store the vast reels of captured experience we've all lived.
As it turns out, memory isn't like shooting video, but rather is closer to an ordinary camera, storing the occasional still shot, capturing only a few slivers of a much larger experience.
So how do we recall all those episodes of our lives in such brilliant detail? Because while our brain may have limited storage capacity, it has infinite creative abilities. In short, we make it up. Not totally - at least usually not totally! - but we do fill in lots of details, comparing one scene with others, making educated guesses about what really happened, accessing other stored memory-photos and emotions, referencing our overall outlook and expectations about life, and thereby construct a pretty detailed account surrounding the isolated photograph our memory has stored - all in a few milliseconds!
Which is why memory is fragile. As Daniel Kahneman pointed out in last Wednesday's TEDTalk on memory and happiness, while our "experiential self" is far more accurate than our "remembered self," memory almost always trumps experience because our memory creates and brings to bear such powerful (if often inaccurate!) stories.
And here's where things get interesting - and problematic - because memory is susceptible, as both Kahneman and Gilbert point out, to so many outside influences, including the stories around us. We often remember inaccurately, that is, because of the stories others tell us and, ultimately, the stories we tell ourselves.
All of which helps to explain why, even though we know from experience that money doesn't bring us happiness, we often don't act that way - it's because our memories have been influenced, even seduced, by another story. A story that money does, indeed, buy happiness. Indeed, a story that the more money you have the happier you'll be. This story is both pervasive and powerful because it's told by a culture and economy that depends upon the telling - and believing! - of that story in order to survive.
As Gilbert writes,
the production of wealth does not necessarily make individuals happy, but it does serve the needs of an economy, which serves the needs of a stable society, which serves as a network for the propagation of delusional beliefs about happiness and wealth. Economies thrive when individuals strive, but because individuals will only strive for their own happiness, it is essential that they mistakenly believe that producing and consuming are routes to personal well-being (241-242).
What I find fascinating about Gilbert's theory is that there is apparently substantial benefit to the perpetuation of the story that money makes us happy, even though it doesn't. Which would explain, in part, why we can easily get confused about our relationship to money.
So here are my questions, and I'd love to have you chime in as I think about how to make sense of this in relation to thinking about our money in relation to our faith:
1) Does the fact that there is societal benefit to our mistaken ideas about money and happiness change the way we think about this problem? That is, does recognizing that there is some benefit to our mistaken connection between money and happiness make us more positively disposed to our penchant, or at least more understanding?
2) If this connection between our mistaken beliefs and societal stability, presumably, has always been the case, has it changed recently? Has it, that is, gotten more extreme lately with our increased reliance on consumer spending to power our economy?
3) If we are dissatisfied with the cultural story about wealth and happiness, what counter stories can we offer, and do they also have societal benefit?
Enough for now: over the next week or two, I want to explore this cultural story in more depth and think about ways to respond. In the meantime, thanks for your help!