The happiness equation -- and what data says about our ability to be happy.
By Rakesh Sarin and Manel Baucells
Ninety-five years ago, B.C. Forbes asked in the first issue of his magazine (Forbes): "Business was originated to produce happiness. Are we in danger of forgetting this?"
To be happy is a basic human desire. Happy people tend to be healthier, live longer, and have better social relationships. Happy employees tend to be more productive and happy customers are likely to be more loyal and to buy more.
So the question: how do we become happier?
Over the past 10 years, we have examined and analyzed data and evidence from all over the world to come up with a set of laws that govern our happiness. Those laws are supported by findings from scientific experiments, examples from ancient literature and pearls of wisdom from the world’s religions and spiritual practices. These laws of happiness are universal and apply to all of us.
The Happiness Equation
A logical implication of our laws of happiness is the fundamental equation:
Happiness equals reality minus shifting expectations.
As we try to improve our reality, by working harder so we can make more money, buy a bigger house, or drive a fancier car, our expectations also shift. We are happy for a little while, but soon enough expectations catch up with reality. We will give you three strategies for improving happiness and then you can come up with many more ideas yourselves.
Our equation suggests that new material aspirations arise as previous ones are satisfied, making all of us work harder and harder to see ourselves in exactly the same situation all over again: wanting something new. We face a sort of emotional "global warming." if we get used to consuming too much too soon, our future happiness is put at risk. One typical example is the children of wealthy parents who are not able to keep up with the lifestyle they’ve always known.
When it comes to fame and fortune, beware: the equation predicts that your expectations will also rise and any gain in happiness will be temporary.
So, if expectations catch up with reality, is there an easy and foolproof way to be happy? Basic goods escape this paradox, because expectations for these goods do not fluctuate much and these are less susceptible to social comparison. The treasure of happiness that is in reach for most of us is found in basic goods. The simplest example of a basic good is food. We will always enjoy a meal when hungry.
But basic goods are present everywhere in our life. How can we tell whether a good or experience is basic or not?
The Happiness Test
Ask yourself the following two questions:
- If nobody knew I am buying or experiencing X, would I still want X?
- Will I enjoy X in the future -- say five years from now -- as much as I do now?
If the answer is yes to both questions, then X is a basic good for you.
We can think of basic goods in three categories:
- The needs of the body,
- The needs of the heart, and
- The needs of the mind.
Food, health, shelter, sex, and rest are the needs of the body. Basic goods that meet the needs of the heart and mind are things like spending time with friends and family and listening to music we love – things that consistently make us happy.
The Crescendo Strategy
Less to More (Crescendo)
You should plan your life carefully so that the gap between reality and expectations stays the same or increases. The way to be happy is not just to have a lot, but to follow a crescendo strategy in life choices – less to more. On a small, short-term scale, this can be done on a vacation; rather than immediately visiting the most spectacular museum or historic site, save those experiences for the end of your trip.
But as a philosophy of life, you can work to organize the chapters in your book of life from less to more (that is, follow a crescendo strategy). In raising children, for example, do not give them too much too fast. In organizations such as those with call centers or service employees, more frequent promotions associated with achieving some well-defined milestone or goal will improve employee satisfaction. Crescendo strategy is very similar to what is used in karate by awarding different color belts for progress.
Cumulative View of Reality
We should recognize that reality is not one truth out there; we have a choice in how we interpret it. In a well-know parable, a traveler comes upon a group of hard-at-work stonemasons. He asks each in turn what he is doing. John says, “I am constructing a wall.” Paul says, “I am building a cathedral.” Even though John and Paul are doing the same work, Paul sees a greater purpose and meaning in his daily work.
Besides emphasizing basic goods in life, happiness has a chance to blossom if we view reality as a cumulative good. Cumulative goods naturally produce a less-to-more perception. Progressing towards goals, helping with causes that transcend us, developing relationships are ways to be happy by gradually filling the metaphorical bucket. In cumulative activities, the gap between accumulated reality and expectations ensures a constant flow of happiness.
Viewing reality in a cumulative way requires that you appreciate how far you have come, rather than just what you have accomplished today. To be happy, we should set goals (losing weight, writing a poem, preparing for a marathon, or helping a charity) and make progress towards these goals.
Some people say that happiness is like a pendulum – some days you are happy, some days not and there’s not much you can do to change that. But we believe that happiness is like a sailboat. Indeed the wind and ocean currents influence its movements, but you have control of the rudder. Without your exerting control, the sailboat drifts.
Our key premise is that happiness is a choice; and regardless of our circumstances or where we are in the world or in our lives, we can all improve our level of happiness. The control lever for extracting happiness from the equation is in your hands.
About the Authors:
Rakesh Sarin is a Distinguished Professor of Management at the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles. Manel Baucells is Professor of Business and Economics at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona. They are co-authors of Engineering Happiness: A New Approach for Building a Joyful Life, (University of California Press, 2012). Sarin was recently invited to discuss Engineering Happiness at a TED conference.