It may seem a bit out of place to be discussing keys to a happy life in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, social unrest, and economic upheaval. However, this may just be the perfect time to ponder pathways to happiness, especially since we may have a bit more personal time on our hands with working from home and social distancing.
Arthur C. Brooks, professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School, and host of the podcast The Art of Happiness with Arthur Brooks offers three equations for well-being which, in his opinion, are vital to know in order to start managing your own happiness more proactively.
Let’s take a look at his three equations to jump start you on a journey towards a happier life:
Equation 1: Subjective Well-being = Genes + Circumstances + Habits
Subjective well-being is what sociologists refer to when assessing one’s level of happiness. It is how people experience and evaluate their lives and specific domains and activities in their lives. As Dr. Brooks puts it: subjective well-being answers the question “taken all together, how would you say things are these days – would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?”
Research has shown that there is a huge genetic component in determining your “set point” for your subjective well-being, the baseline you always seem to return to after events sway your mood. Psychologists David Lykken and Auke Tellegen estimate that the genetic component of a person’s well-being is between 44 and 52 percent, a guideline determined from an exhaustive study of twins, which included identical twins reared apart and then tested as adults.
The percentile impact on subjective well-being by the other two components, circumstances and habits, is not as easy to nail down. Research is all over the board on what percentage each part represents. The circumstances of one’s life can make up as little as 10 percent and as much as 40 percent. However, the effects of circumstances are fleeting, so most scholars think the impact on happiness is not as pronounced. For instance, getting a big promotion or having an increase in income does not guarantee long-term happiness – it feels awesome in the moment but then we get used to our new circumstances rapidly and then return to a happiness set point (think about the feeling purchasing a new car or house and then how you felt one year later).
Dr. Brooks says that focusing on genes or circumstances is not very productive, for these things are mostly beyond our control. One variable that is under our control and which greatly affects our long-term well-being is habits, which leads us to Equation 2.
Equation 2: Habits = Faith + Family + Friends + Work
Dr. Brooks has distilled Equation 2 from thousands of academic studies and is convinced that it is accurate, though some scholars dispute it as too crude. In his words, enduring happiness comes from human relationships, productive work, and the transcendental elements of life.
The key to the first variable, faith, is to find a structure through which you can ponder life’s deeper questions and transcend a focus on your narrow self-interests to serve others. Many different faiths and secular life philosophies offer the happiness edge – find the one that best motivates you to shift your focus.
For the family and friends variables, the key is to cultivate and maintain loving, faithful relationships with other people. The extraordinary Harvard study, which followed graduates over a 75-year period, looking at all aspects of their health and well-being, showed that people who have loving relationships with family and friends thrive. Conversely, those who do not have these relationships fail to thrive.
The final variable in the equation is work, which may be surprising. However, happiness research overwhelmingly finds that productive human endeavors create a sense of purpose in life and are a key component of happiness. The kind of work is less important than the level of fulfillment; meaning, does the work give you a sense that you are earning your success and serving others?
Equation 3: Satisfaction = What You Have ÷ What You Want
We try to achieve higher levels of satisfaction by increasing what we have – by working, spending, working, spending and on and on, according to Dr. Brooks. But this is pure futility, for we will never be satisfied with obtaining status quo. Satisfaction will always be just beyond our grasp, forcing us to strive even more.
According to the professor, the secret to satisfaction is to focus on the denominator of Equation 3. Quit obsessing about your haves and instead manage your wants. Do not count your possessions (or money, power, prestige, romantic partners, or fame) and try to figure out how to increase them; instead, make an inventory of your worldly desires and try to decrease them. He posits that the fewer wants there are screaming inside your brain and dividing your attention, the more peace and satisfaction will be left for what you already have.
Take a moment to analyze these three equations and determine where you can tweak some of the variables to increase the happiness in your life. Can you introduce some new, positive habits in Equation 1? Can you make a positive increase in one or more of the variables in Equation 2? Are you able to make a bucket list of attachments you need to discard in Equation 3 so that you find greater peace and satisfaction?