Daniel Kahneman offers advice to grads on building a happy life

Daniel Kahneman

The honorary degree recipient shared advice on living a successful life with Faculty of Health graduates, the first cohort of York University’s Keele Campus to celebrate Spring Convocation 2023.

The beginning of the ceremony saw York University’s newly installed chancellor Kathleen Taylor address graduands, asking them to consider an important question for their lives ahead. “What is success? How do we find define it in our own lives?”

She offered an answer. “Remember that success is not an endpoint, but a continuous pursuit in a lifelong journey. It’s a journey that will present new challenges requiring us to adapt and grow. So, embrace them, seize opportunities, and continue to strive for excellence to better yourself and the world around you. And once you achieve one goal, as you have here today, be sure to set another that will set you on a path of lifelong learning and experience that will serve you well,” she said.

It was a theme that would be continued by economic and psychologist Kahneman, the winner of the Nobel prize in 2022 for Economic Sciences and the best-selling author of Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Chancellor Kathleen Taylor, honorary degree recipient Daniel Kahneman and President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda Lenton
Chancellor Kathleen Taylor, honorary degree recipient Daniel Kahneman and President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda Lenton

Kahneman began addressing the graduating class by explaining how all individuals have two separate aspects of well-being: the self that experiences life minute by minute, and the self that writes the story of a life through memories. “The experiencing self does the living and your remembering self keeps score and creates the story of your life,” he said.

To illustrate the difference, Kahneman recalled someone who once was recounting to him how they had been enjoying listening to a vinyl recording of a symphony, but then a record scratch at the end had ruined the whole experience. “I pointed out to him that he was wrong. It wasn’t the experience that was ruined. He had experienced 20 minutes of glorious music. What was ruined was a memory of the experience. This is entirely different,” Kahneman said.

The recipient of an honorary doctor of science proceeded to share his thoughts on how to live a life that satisfies both our experiencing and remembering selves.

“Make the best possible use of your time,” he stressed for the experiencing self. “There are experiences that just waste time. This is the time that you spend commuting unless you do something while you’re commuting. This is the time that you spend on mindless games. And you should think of time as a precious resource because actually time is all you have. Time is the currency of life and spending it wisely is a very good idea,” he says. “Don’t settle for ways of just making the time pass. And don’t settle for experiences that don’t mean anything.”

As for graduands remembering selves, Kahneman – like Taylor – emphasized the importance of goals. “Satisfaction comes from meeting and achieving your goals. And so your life satisfaction will depend on the goals that you adopt,” he said. “Setting aspirations in a way that you can meet is one of the ways of achieving a satisfying life. The goal should be high. They should challenge you but they should not be out of your reach.” He cautioned against goals like wealth and fame, because they are difficult to achieve and when unmet can create dissatisfaction.

Kahneman also offered graduands some hopeful reassurance. “Most of you will have satisfying lives. You have a very good chance for long and healthy life,” he said before leaving graduands with his own hopes for them. “In sum, my wish for you is that you spend your time wisely, because that’s the way to a happy life, and that you adopt sensible and challenging goals, because that’s the way for your life to be a good story.”