Sam Harris interviewed psychologist Daniel Kahneman. Daniel has an interesting scientific perspective of happiness.

Sam: How should the split between these two points of view affect our understanding of the good life?

Daniel: Some conceptions of the good life take the Aristotelian view to the extreme of denying altogether the relevance of subjective well-being. For those who do not want to go that far, the distinction between experienced happiness and life satisfaction raises serious problems. In particular, there appears to be little hope for any unitary concept of subjective well-being. I used to hold a unitary view, in which I proposed that only experienced happiness matters, and that life satisfaction is a fallible estimate of true happiness. I eventually concluded that this view is not tenable, for one simple reason: people seem to be much more concerned with the satisfaction of their goals than with the achievement of experienced happiness. A definition of subjective well-being that ignores people’s goals is not tenable. On the other hand, an exclusive focus on satisfaction is not tenable either. If two people are equally satisfied (or unsatisfied) with their lives but one of them is almost always smiling happily and the other is mostly miserable, will we ignore that in assessing their well-being?

Rightly, Sam then brings up self-deception. No discussion on happiness is complete without talking about the biggest factor that hinders the honest introspection of happiness.

Sam: To what extent to do you think true self-deception (as opposed to simple bias) exists?

Daniel: I don’t know how you expect to distinguish true self-deception from simple bias. Suppose you like someone very much. Then by a familiar halo effect you will also be prone to believe many good things about that person—you will be biased in their favor. Most of us like ourselves very much, and that suffices to explain self-assessments that are biased in a particular direction. You will believe these biased assessments regardless of whether they are about you or about someone else. We resist evidence that threatens our positive image of people we love. And perhaps we love ourselves more intensely than we love most (or all) others. When does this become self-deception?

A discussion on happiness can go on for hours leading to nowhere, as I recently found while talking to a fellow traveller in Ecuador. But more on that in the travelogue. I promise it is coming up soon.

While travelling, happiness is the most discussed topic — in that I bring it up in conversations. I like to understand how others interpret the word and what it means to them in their lives. Visualize a scale with two extremes being actively seeking happiness and passively receiving it. I find that fellow travellers often like to reach out and seek happiness actively — indeed that is one reason why they are travellers. Most of the other interactions I have happen with those who are closer to the passive end of the scale.


I’m looking forward to reading Daniel’s Thinking, Fast And Slow. I have read a bit of philosophers and spiritual people talk about happiness. It will be interesting to hear what a psychologist has to say.