(Literal) Formulas for Happiness?

I try to avoid providing a formula for happiness. Therefore, in this article I will NOT provide A formula for happiness; I will provide several. And they are literally formulas :). Obviously they are rough and to be taken with a grain of salt, but they all have quite a bit of truth to them.

1. Happiness = Reality – Expectation
Expectations are more controllable than Reality. What’s more, expectations can increase to fill reality. For instance, doubling incomes often leads to a more lavish lifestyle and an expectation of nicer foods, clothes, etc… Worse, in this case, Expectations can disporoportionately increase so that an improvement in Realtiy can make one unhappier!

2. Happiness = Evaluation(New,Old)
This is similar to #1, except that it focuses on a change from one state to another. Evaluation is more under our control than the states (New,Old). However, the take-home point of is that a view of happiness based on getting things may implicitly define happiness as a TRANSITION rather than a STATE. This by definition means that lasting happiness is impossible and one must get a never-ending stream of stuff to get those moments of happiness that live only in the transition.

3. Unhappiness = Event x Clinging
Events are less controllable than Clinging. Notice the multiplication: Bad things are made much, Much, MUCH worse by clinging.

4. Happiness = Genetics (50%) + Conditions (10%) + Actions (40%)
We can’t control genetics, have limited control over conditions (which have a small impact), but can control actions. First, how can I say conditions are minor? Studies showed that even lottery winners and new paraplegics returned to their previous levels of happiness after a short while! I can’t think of a change in conditions more pronounced than that. As for actions, they consist of little things like exercise, and not the “big ticket” items that we think will bring us lasting happiness.

A Unified Theory of Everything?
It’s tempting to bring all the above formulas together with a snippet of advice; in fact, maybe you have an idea of a way of doing so. If you do and it looks sound, try living it. Here’s my rough cut:

Abandon the idea of happiness based on getting or achieving things (#2). Instead focus on reducing expectations (#1) and clinging (#3) by letting go (#3). Focus more of your energies on “smaller” things like exercise, volunteering and interesting/immersive activities (#4).

The above is remarkable for its sheer banality.  Words like underwhelming come to mind. Yet, maybe it is profound because it is cliched and utterly unoriginal?  Maybe the profound part is that happiness has been solved, perhaps for thousands of years, and our challenge all along was to put it in practice rather than just read about it.  Perhaps the real leap is in appreciating the difference between living a truth (and hence realizing it) and intellectually assenting to it? Maybe, the real paradigm shift lies in really accepting that happiness really is in the little things and to stop structuring our lives around goals?

Further Reading

How Much of Our Happiness is Within Our Control?

Happiness Strategies, with some interesting quotes from Economist/Moral Philosopher Adam Smith


4 thoughts on “(Literal) Formulas for Happiness?

  1. Here’s a study case you may find interesting: you have low expectations, but your wife/girlfriend does not. You want her to be happy (because you love her and you feel empathy) and therefore feel anxious because of trying to meet her expectations, not yours. In this case, you could try to reduce her expectations, but it may not work, since you don’t control her mind. Or you can choose to “let go” in the sense that you decide to not try to fulfill her expectations, but that will make you sad because of empathy (let’s imagine you’re not afraid of her leaving you).
    What would you recommend in this case?

  2. Let me start by saying I have very little experience with relationships. I’m not in one, have not been in one for years, and am not looking for one. The few times I have dated, I have fallen into it, and I thoroughly expect to remain single for the rest of my days and am quite content with it.

    Now with this in mind, do you REALLY want my advice? 🙂

    If so, I would like some more information. Let’s say X is the person in the relationship who has low expectations and Y is the person who does not. So when you say X is sad because of empathy, do you mean X is sad because X knows how X’s low expectations make Y sad, and what makes Y sad makes X sad? Also, have X & Y come into conflict over these expectations? Does Y know X has low expectations? If so, how does Y react?

    1. I am actually married but my wife has wonderfully low expectations, though I was partially inspired by a real conundrum to write the study case, such as choosing which place to go to live taking into account also what she may enjoy or which kind of job she may find.
      In the study case, when I say X is sad because of empathy, I mean X is sad because, when Y is sad (because of not achieving her expectations because of X) he also feels sad. For the sake of the example let’s say Y knows X has low expectations, but she doesn’t mind as long as X acts as if he did. Having a low expectation doesn’t mean not trying hard, after all. It just means you don’t mind if you don’t reach certain goals. The problem with Y will happen when her expectations are not matched.

      1. Ok, I think I understand. This sounds like the question could be generalized to one of empathy or compassion, so I’ll try to answer in those general terms.

        What to do if we are not upset personally, but feel for others who are?

        First, realize these feelings are really about us, not them. For instance, I would feel sad for a family member in distress, but I don’t feel the same way for a stranger. My “compassion” in this case is due to my interests in the matter. Realizing this may help deal with the sorrow as there’s something about sorrow that makes it more pernicious when we think it’s due to “righteousness” or “ethics” or even “genuine compassion” (ie: something outside ourselves).

        Second, remember that feelings are just that and we not only do not help anyone with our feelings, but we are not obligated to feel a certain way.

        Third, recognize that true compassion is action and nothing but.

        So if someone feels bad for another, overcome the feelings by realizing their true nature, then do something about the genuine situation by action, without getting wrapped up in expectations of the action. As you point out, low expectations don’t mean one doesn’t try to achieve; this is very similar to working hard but being detached to the “fruit of one’s actions” as some Hindu texts put it.

        I hope that helps.

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