- Research suggests that our current feelings interfere with memories of past wellbeing
By Shailendree Wickrama Adittiya
Chasing happiness is something many of us can admit to doing, even though we may say we are content with the way things are or feel like happiness is not as important as it is made to seem. However, happiness also seems elusive, always slipping through our fingers, always out of reach.
It also doesn’t seem constant. Someone who starts the day feeling happy, may go to bed feeling the opposite. If someone asks us if we had a happy childhood, our answer may vary depending on how we feel at the moment. There are moments where we say we were “happy back then” but soon remember unpleasant memories, or we may think about an unhappy childhood, but then remember moments of happiness and joy.
This could be because our current feelings can interfere with memories of past wellbeing. The Association for Psychological Science (APS) in an article published on 8 November states that University College London and University of Oxford Assistant Professor Alberto Prati and University of Paris Professor Claudia Senik have analysed the data from four longitudinal surveys to better investigate this.
“Happy people tend to overstate the improvement of their life satisfaction over time, whereas unhappy ones tend to overstate the deterioration of their level of happiness. This indicates a certain confusion between feeling happy and feeling better,” the authors stated.
Analysing four surveys
According to APS, Prati and Senik first analysed existing data from the German Socio-Economic Panel’s ongoing survey of German citizens’ wellbeing, focusing on responses from 11,056 participants between 2006 and 2016. Each year, participants had reported how satisfied they were with their life on a scale of one to 10. In 2016, respondents were also asked to select one of nine line-graphs that best reflected the trajectory of their life satisfaction over the past decade.
Prati and Senik observed that the participants’ graph selections were generally reflective of their past responses, with people who reported higher current life satisfaction being more likely to select a chart illustrating continuous improvement.
While people with moderate satisfaction were likelier to select a chart illustrating slight improvement, people who reported lower current life satisfaction were likelier to select a chart illustrating dips in their well-being.
“People are able to recall how they used to feel about their life, but they also tend to mix this memory with the way they currently feel,” Prati and Senik said.
The researchers then looked at data gathered from 20,269 participants in the 1997-2009 British Household Panel Survey. As part of the survey, respondents had reported their current life satisfaction on a scale of one to seven as well as whether they felt more, less, or equally satisfied as they recalled being the year before.
Prati and Senik observed that around half of the respondents accurately recalled how their current life satisfaction compared with their report the previous year, but, as with the German data, inaccurate recollections appeared to be influenced by current satisfaction.
The third survey analysed by Prati and Senik was conducted by the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies survey, studying 18,589 French participants. On average, they recalled being less happy a year ago than they had actually reported on the survey.
American respondents to the 1971, 1976, 2001, and 2006 Gallup Poll Social Series demonstrated the same tendency to underreport their past happiness, with the average responses of 4,000 participants suggesting that Americans remembered being less happy five years ago than they had reported at the time, the researchers found.
“It thus seems that feeling happy today implies feeling better than yesterday,” Prati and Senik wrote, adding: “This recall structure has implications for motivated memory and learning and could explain why happy people are more optimistic, perceive risks to be lower, and are more open to new experiences.”
In their future work, Prati and Senik plan to investigate how biased memories influence behaviour, including people’s willingness to take risks, engage in entrepreneurship, and take on new experiences.