Effortless Knowing from Experience and Effortful Thinking in the Abstract

Whether the experience you are having is sapping away all of your energy or re-energizing you to the fullest, you know which one it is.  I have asked thousands of people on six continents (all but Antarctica) whether they know the difference between energy-depleting and energy-enhancing experiences, and they all do.  I suggest this is important, because this knowing tells you something specific about the agreements underlying the experience you are having.  Ecosynomics research shows that the agreements underlying energy-depleting experiences are completely different than the agreements underlying energy-enhancing experiences.  If you know what experience you are having (energy enhancing or depleting), and you know that this experience is based on a set of agreements about the ways people interact, how they relate to each other, then you have a choice.

Leading research gives us some insights into what to do about this.  Princeton Professor of Psychology Daniel Kahneman summarizes his vast research into how people think in his latest book Thinking, Fast and Slow, suggesting that people tend to use either fast, effortless thinking (System 1) or slow, effortful thinking (System 2).  Both systems have their strengths and their weaknesses, which he and his colleagues have researched extensively.

Combining this System 1-System 2 perspective with the observation of knowing experientially whether you are in a set of energy-enhancing or energy-depleting agreements leads us to a new possibility.  Maybe we can use the fast, effortless thinking in System 1 to help us be aware of something that we completely miss when we depend solely on the slow, effortful thinking in System 2.

When I have asked people what percentage of their daily life they spend in energy-depleting experiences, many tell me that it is more than 75% of their daily experience.  When I ask if they have a preference for energy-enhancing or energy-depleting experiences, they tend to laugh and say, “Of course!  I prefer the energy-enhancing experiences.”  I then ask, “Then why do you spend so much of your life in the energy-depleting experiences?”  Across the world, the responses are very similar — dumbfounded looks.  “I have to.  Don’t I?”  When we look at this a little bit, we discover that many of our energy-depleting experiences are with the same people that we also have occasional energy-enhancing experiences, and vice versa.  So, if we have to have energy-depleting experiences, it would be because that is just the way life is.  But it isn’t, at least not always.  Sometimes it is different, sometimes it is energy-enhancing.  If it is possible, if it is available, then maybe it is a choice.  So, if it is a choice, why do we not see this in so many of our relationships?

Coming back to Professor Kahneman’s research, the answer might be because we used Systems 2 thinking — the slow, effortful kind — to try to understand the agreements we have.  It is hard, it is abstract, it is difficult.  Therefore, we don’t think about it; we tend to just accept it.  However, if we use System 1 thinking — the fast, effortless kind — the kind we know experientially, then we can realize immediately that we are in a set of agreements that are energy-depleting.  This fast trigger can then be used to engage the question, with others, of whether we want these energy-sucking agreements.  We can then use System 2 thinking to choose the agreements we want.

Here’s the process I suggest.  Starting with System 1’s fast, effortless thinking, you know what you are experiencing.  Use that as the trigger for the question, “Is the experience I want to be having?”  If not, then ask, “What agreements do I want?”  Now it is time for System 2’s slow, effortful thinking.

To Be or Not to Be, Happy with Money, That Is the Question

Dunn, Elizabeth, & Norton, Michael. (2013). Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Most experiences of money do not increase happiness.  Some do.  So say 2002 Nobel laureate in economics Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues (Kahneman & Deaton, 2010; Kahneman, Krueger, Schkade, Schwarz, & Stone, 2006).  In their new book Happy Money (2013), professors Dunn and Norton show us the research that explains why.  From an Ecosynomics perspective, this research shows that happiness comes from the experience of potential and development and things, light and motion and matterthe interweaving experience of all three levels of perceived reality.  The lack of happiness comes from valuing only the things level of reality.  Dunn and Norton say it so well, that I use quotes from their book to explain the observation.

Only the Things Level.  What happens when people experience money only at the things-matter level? “Material purchases offer clear, concrete benefits, explaining their appeal.  We can see them in front of us and hold them in our hands” (Dunn & Norton, 2013, p. 22).  And the value we experience, in terms of increased happiness, fades quickly with material purchases.  In many cases, we derive more happiness from the anticipation of the purchase than the actual purchase.  “Why do we fail to recognize that consuming later can enhance enjoyment?  Research shows that when something nice is available immediately, the “power of now” dwarfs all else” (Dunn & Norton, 2013, p. 90).  “It’s difficult to overcome the power of now, but it’s possible to harness this force” (Dunn & Norton, 2013, pp. 102-103).

Both the Development and Things Levels.  What happens in experiential purchases (over time) versus material-transaction purchases, when both the development and things levels of reality are perceived?  “Research shows that satisfaction with experiential purchases tends to increase with the passage of time, while satisfaction with material purchases tends to decrease” (Dunn & Norton, 2013, pp. 23-24).  “Because the benefits of experiences are often more abstract than the benefits of material goods, it’s easier to appreciate the value of experiential purchases with the psychological distance that time provides”  (Dunn & Norton, 2013, p. 23).

And the Possibility Level. “The ability to generate pleasant thoughts about the future is a hallmark of psychological health…Anticipating good things produces a distinct pattern of neural activation in the nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain linked to the experience of pleasure and reward” (Dunn & Norton, 2013, p. 82; Knutson & Peterson, 2005, p. 310).  “The same region of the brain that responds when we anticipate something good (the nucleus accumbens) loses interest once we’ve gotten it” (Dunn & Norton, 2013, p. 86; Knutson & Peterson, 2005, p. 310).

The authors suggest five principles of happy money, making choices about how we spend money on experiences we have in all three levels of perceived reality (possibility, development, things), and not just the things level.  They provide the research that shows these five principles will increase the happiness we derive from the use of our money.  I highly recommend Happy Money as a very accessible journey through the research that shows how to get the most value of one’s experiences around money.


Kahneman, Daniel, & Deaton, Angus. (2010). High Income Improves Evaluation of Life But Not Emotional Well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(38), 16489-16493.

Kahneman, Daniel, Krueger, Alan B, Schkade, David, Schwarz, Norbert, & Stone, Arthur A. (2006). Would You Be Happier If You Were Richer?  A Focusing Illusion. Science, 312(5782), 1908-1910.

Knutson, Brian, & Peterson, Richard. (2005). Neurally Reconstructing Expected Utility. Games and Economic Behavior, 52(2), 305-315.