The Three Equations for a Happy Life

  1. Subjective Well-being = Genes + Circumstances + Habits
  2. Habits = Faith + Family + Friends + Work
  3. Satisfaction = What you have ÷ What you want

“Think of these three equations as the first class in the mechanics of building a life. But there is much, much more where all that comes from.”

-Arthur C. Brooks, “The Three Equations for a Happy Life, Even During a Pandemic.” The Atlantic. April 9, 2020

It seems like a strange argument. I would think that this is a classic nature vs. nurture argument, or in the terms of these equations, Genes vs. Circumstances. Genes are what they are, but with some plasticity depending on the adaptation response. Circumstances are the environment we are born into, which would include family and material possessions and to some extent childhood friends.

Habits I would think more in terms of mental models and fields of action. You can pick your friends. You have choice in what you want. Our selection of work and how hard he work at it is largely up to us. These choices can change our circumstances, in some cases.

So, maybe: Genes / (Circumstances / (Positive Change – Negative Change))

However, I can see how this formulation lacks the aesthetics for a general audience.

See also: Authentic Happiness for other test measures.

Happiness Curve / U-Curve

For some reason, I believe I’ve posted the idea that happiness and perception of well-being follows a predictable curve that hits its low-point in one’s late 40’s for people in developed countries. However, looking for it right now, I was not able to find it. So, here’s a link to an overview article, a book length treatment, and a research article with the following abstract that brought the idea into popular currency:

“We present evidence that psychological well-being is U-shaped through life. A difficulty with research on this issue is that thereare likely to be omitted cohort effects (earlier generations may have been born in, say, particularly good or bad times). First, usingdata on 500,000 randomly sampled Americans and West Europeans, the paper designs a test that can control for cohort effects.Holding other factors constant, we show that a typical individual’s happiness reaches its minimumeon both sides of the Atlanticand for both males and femalesein middle age. Second, evidence is provided for the existence of a similar U-shape through thelife-course in East European, Latin American and Asian nations. Third, a U-shape in age is found in separate well-being regressionequations in 72 developed and developing nations. Fourth, using measures that are closer to psychiatric scores, we document a com-parable well-being curve across the life cycle in 2 other data sets (1) in GHQ-N6 mental health levels among a sample of 16,000Europeans, and (2) in reported depression-and-anxiety levels among 1 million UK citizens. Fifth, we discuss some apparent exceptions, particularly in developing nations, to the U-shape. Sixth, we note that American male birth-cohorts seem to have becomeprogressively less content with their lives. Our results are based on regression equations in which other influences, such as demo-graphic variables and income, are held constant.

-David G. Blanchflowera and Andrew J. Oswald, “Is well-being U-shaped over the life cycle?Social Science & Medicine. March 7, 2008.

Authentic Happiness

“The purpose of this website is to provide free resources where people can learn about Positive Psychology through readings, videos, research, opportunities, conferences, questionnaires with feedback and more. There is no charge for the use of this site. If you would like to take the questionnaires, you first need to register.

Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive. This field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of work, love and play.”

https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/

The One Year Rule

If you want your life to change, wait a year. It’ll change. Of course, it may not be for the better.

A study in 2008 found that happiness tends to follow a U-shaped curve, where the lowest level of happiness occurs somewhere around age 46. Yet, there are confounding factors. A death of a spouse, child or close family member, divorce/marital separation, imprisonment, personal injury or illness, or loss of meaningful work can all contribute to shifting our nadir of happiness into a different period. But, knowing that the 40s can be a difficult time, on average, and that life tends to improve after can be a helpful thing to know. It can be a source of hope.

Nothing is sure in this life but change. Are things difficult for you? All you need to do is wait. It’ll change.


!(Usefulness > Happiness)

I keep seeing Darius Foroux‘s writing showing up as a Pocket recommendation through Firefox. Recently, “The Purpose Of Life Is Not Happiness: It’s Usefulness” was the top recommendation. It ends on this note:

“Don’t take it too seriously. Don’t overthink it. Just DO something that’s useful. Anything.”

Being contrary, it reminded me of this famous Zen quote:

“Don’t just do something, sit there.”

Darius states on his main page that his areas of concern are: productivity, habits, decision making and personal finance. It occurs to me that the modern preoccupation with “Getting Things Done,” efficiency, “time management” and so forth is just a secular version of the Protestant work ethic. It’s an extension of the existing culture, where your value or usefulness is determined by how much money you make.

But, let’s take it at face value. Let’s imagine Elon Musk. He’s reinvigorated the space race, electric cars, energy storage, and other industries. Few people could make the claim that they have been more useful to society.

Elon Musk does not have a goal to be “useful,” broadly defined. He has a specific goal, i.e., to facilitate the colonization of Mars before climate change or some other extinction event closes the window of possibility for humanity. Everything he does is geared toward forwarding that goal.

A society needs people like Elon Musk for its long term survival. But, it doesn’t need a lot of them. So, what of everyone else?

Is usefulness to other people a purpose to which we all should strive? And what then of the people that do not have an obvious use, people that are a burden to society? Or, more ambiguously, people that aren’t useful in any obvious way? Or the fact that almost everyone will at some point be “useless”? How will we find value in our lives then?

This is where the Zen quote really gets to the point. People crave money, power and fame. All of these are “useful,” but they are also a distraction. They reinforce the ego. They make people dissatisfied with what they have or scared they will lose it. They make people less adaptable to change. Defining the purposes of life as usefulness is a recipe for creating unhappiness as our usefulness, however defined, changes.

Happiness Hows

“Santos looks at the work of Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, and the author of The How of Happiness. Lyubomirsky is well known for her thought experiment about what affects our happiness, which she expresses in a pie chart: She proposes that roughly 50 percent of happiness is determined by genes (i.e., totally out of your control), roughly 10 percent is determined by circumstance (i.e., somewhat out of your control), and the final 40 percent is determined by your thoughts, actions, and attitudes (i.e., entirely within your control)…

…there are certain habits that have been shown to be consistent among happy people. Happy people devote time to family and friends. They practice gratitude. They practice optimism. They are physically active. They “savor life’s pleasures and try to live in the present moment…”

—Adam Sternbergh. “Read This Story and Get Happier.” The Cut. May 28, 2018.

It’s pointed to in the article, but it’s probably worth highlighting Penn’s Authentic Happiness website.

Perception & Reality

“‘We read the world wrong and say it deceives us,’ wrote Rabindranath Tagore. We take for permanent that which is ephemeral and for happiness that which is but a source of suffering: the desire for wealth, for power, for fame, and for nagging pleasures…By knowledge we mean not mastery of masses of information and learning but an understanding of the true nature of things. Out of habit, we perceive the exterior world as a series of distinct, autonomous entities to which we attribute characteristics that we believe belong inherently to them. Our day-to-day experience tells us that things are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The ‘I’ that perceives them seems to us to be equally concrete and real. This error, which Buddhism calls ignorance, gives rise to powerful reflexes  of attachment and aversion that lead to suffering. As Etty Hillesum says so tersely: ‘That great obstacle is always the representation and never the reality.'”

—Ricard, Matthieu. Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2003.