The 2 Modes of Happiness: The Past and the Present


The Two Flavors of Happiness

“Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.” –Jonathan K. Foster

Your “Experiencing-Self” lives in the present.  It’s the one that answers the question, “How do you feel?”

Your “Remembering-Self” lives in the past.  It’s the one that answers the question, “How have you been feeling?”

Your “Experiencing Self” Cares About Time

Your “Remembering Self” is the one that keeps the score. Your “Remembering-Self” is also a storyteller.  It turns your experiences into stories.  A story is simply where there is a change, a significant moment, and an ending.

The key distinction between the two selves is time.  For your “Experiencing-Self”, time matters.  A two-week vacation can feel good, or bad, twice as long.

Your “Remembering-Self” Cares About How the Story Ends

For your “Remembering-Self”, it’s not about time.  Whether you have a two week vacation or a one week vacation doesn’t matter to your “Remembering-Self”.  It’s about the story, and a very critical part of the story is how it ends.

That’s why it’s good to end on a high-note.

Two Concepts for Happiness

Because of these two selves, our “Experiencing-Self” and our “Remembering-Self”, we end up with two concepts for happiness:

  1. How happy are the moments of your experiencing self?
  2. How happy or satisfied are you when they think about your life?

It’s not your day to day experiences that ultimately matter — it’s the story you tell yourself and it’s how the story ends.

A Bad Ending to Your Story Can Ruin Your Happiness

To put this another way, we need two terms to think about “happiness.”  We can think of happiness in terms of how we feel in our “Experiencing-Self”, and we can think of “well-being” in terms of our “Remembering-Self.”

Here’s the catch: You can have pretty good experiences for the most part, but then a bad ending to your story can ruin your memory of it.

A Good Story Can Improve Your Happiness

On the flip side, you can have a generally lousy day to day experience, and yet what you focus on, and, the story you tell yourself about your life, can improve your sense of well-being, or your sense of fulfillment.

Ted Talk Video by Daniel Kahnenman on Happiness

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahnenman gives a great talk on this concept in his Ted Talk – Daniel Kahneman: The Riddle of Experience vs. Memory.

Photo by Joyseph.


  1. Hey JD,

    That is interesting. To me, I have always viewed happiness as a form of inner peace and that is how I aim to experience happiness. That said, it was cool to see it from another angle.

    Thank you for the video too! I will add it to my never ending list of TED talks to watch.

  2. Hi J.D. — that’s an important distinction, I think — we can get so lost in the “Remembering Self”‘s ideas about what we need to do to be happy, or avoid unhappiness, that we forget to stay curious and keep exploring new possibilities in life.

  3. hi jd… nice way of putting it. it’s really what we focus on that affects perception and creates our “reality”. i think the usual dilemma for most people is how they can manage to control the way their thoughts spin out. in fact, most feel that their thoughts have a mind of its own and they cant really have any say on where it goes… that they can only react.

    “happiness is what we make it to be” can be interpreted in many ways. what you pointed out here is a simple way to find it easier regardless of circumstances…:)

  4. I think the best solution of all is not to “think” about happiness, but just be present in the moment. Then there’s no need to worry about whether you are happy or not!

    I often have a hard time accessing videos given the challenged internet reality of Hawai’i. I hope others can enjoy them!

  5. @ Nadia — It was definitely an eye-opener for me. I had been meaning to revisit the happiness vs. fulfillment issue, but I forgot about it. I was so happy to see how simple the idea really is … simple, yet profound.

    @ Chris — Right on — curiousity and exploration are the spice of life.

    @ Riza — You hit on that ever so precious idea that responding over reacting is the key to success.

    @ Sandra — Too true — in fact, I think of happiness as a by-product. If you chase happiness, it escapes.

    Hawaii sounds like a tough trade — surf and sun, but no videos 😉

    @ Alik — I think you are good at writing and re-writing your story forward … that helps you up-level your life in any situation.

  6. I like to remember that happiness is only every experienced now and that we are always transforming every moment into what we feel.

    So if we are experiencing now or remembering the past, remembering is still done in the present as the present so it is still open to any transformation we want to perform now. So then for myself atleast there is no question of past or present. Only options to experience happiness now.

  7. Hi JD .. that was really interesting and your summary is very succinct and to the point .. I was interested to hear him say that in England we are already taking happiness into account with regard to government policy for the future.

    What you said of Daniel Kahnemman’s TED talk is fascinating .. thanks for sharing with us .. but you’re right – people just remember the bad things .. and not the rest of the good stuff.

    Thanks – Hilary

  8. JD, I love this perspective of the Remembering and the Experiencing Self.

    To me personally it is so much about the story. I’ve been aware of those lousy day to day experiences where I’m in a particularly good mood, just being focused on being happy; things continue to flow no matter how bad the day appears. Things that normally would get to me, don’t.

  9. @ Jarrod — I think we shape a lot of our destiny by changing what we think, feel, or do. It makes our experience very pliable. One of my friends is good at driving from happiness, and I think it’s a great mindset.

    @ Hilary — Thank you. I’ll be really curious to see how England makes it happen. I can’t help but to think of the butterfly effect.

    @ Davina — It reminds me even more to pay attention to the stories I tell myself, and it’s got me re-thinking through a lot of scenarios. I find that reframing or just more empowering vocabulary makes a big difference for me. For example, I try to turn my problems into “challenges” or “opportunities”. It’s simple, but I end up witha more effective and personalized vocabulary over time.

  10. Oooo, I like this one!

    For us, a 1-day-vacation close to home that’s full of wonder, fun and gratitude can beat 14 roller coaster days in Hawaii.

    Happiness is almost always a choice. And non-resistance can lead to some great Experiencing Self moments!

    Great to be back here in J.D. land!!


  11. Hello JD
    I am going to watch the TED talk next. I have a hard time with happiness….and yet I like these two views you present. The story teller often lies or consoles us with what we would like to be the truth.

    I have happy moments and sad moments…but I work at feeling contentment in this moment I have been practicing a form of this for years…then when I think of all the surgeries and stuff…I think they all got me to this very moment – it may be painful or quiet, but I can help this very moment to be of contentment. Its my game plan

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