The Formula for Happiness
In my sophomore year of college, I took a world religions course where I was first exposed to the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the man who would be known as The Buddha. Legend has it that before Siddartha was born, his father was told that he would become either a universal monarch or a great sage. Preferring the king-route, Siddhartha’s father kept him confined in their palace walls, surrounded by every luxury. Siddhartha grew up, got married, and had his own son. Then one day, he snuck out of the palace. In the local streets, he had his first encounters with an elderly man, a sick man, and a dead corpse. For the first time, he realized that life was not just pool parties and Netflix, or whatever Himalayan princes did 2,600 years ago. His life suddenly didn’t make sense. So he left his family and began the ascetic journey that made him The Buddha.
I remember hearing this story and getting angry. This was The Buddha? The moral icon at the center of one of the world’s greatest religions? This guy abandoned his wife and kid because he wanted to go find himself. Then he decides that since life requires suffering he would just learn not to care about anything. He’d train himself into a lobotomy. How was any of this morally righteous? And he hardly ate. Wasn’t he supposed to be fat?
To me, Buddhism was just wrong. I was a Teddy Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Battle of the Light Brigade type of guy. My heroes were people like Pat Tillman and William Wallace - the larger than life characters who charted their own course and lived with legendary passion. Life was about striving mightily, not finding virtue in not striving.
But even as I admired such men, I was not yet capable of modeling their assertive, no-nonsense approach because I was too concerned with trying to be perfect. What I didn’t realize at the time is that to be the bold, passionate dude I wanted to be, I’d have to learn to be a little more like The Buddha.
Around this time, I developed a form of OCD called Pure O - a manifestation of heightened anxiety stemming from my perfectionism. To overcome it, I had to learn about myself, I had to learn to let go, and I had to figure out what conditions and practices I needed in order to thrive.
A Formula For Happiness
In the late 1990’s many psychologists decided to stop studying what was wrong with people and start studying what the happiest, most successful people did right. They began to gather a lot more data on how to, as the cool kids say, “live your best life.” This shifted their emphasis from the defensive (how to fight off pathologies) to the offensive (how to thrive). The positive psychology movement, as it became known, eventually developed a formula for happiness:
Happiness (H) = your genetic happiness set point (S) + the conditions of your life (C) + the voluntary activities that you choose to do (V).
H = S + C + V
Usually, when you see a formula for one of the big, ineffable life concepts like happiness or love, you can safely assume that it is pseudoscientific snake oil. But in this case, the formula is quite helpful in helping us understand happiness and how we can live better. Let’s break it down:
Set Point (S)
Is it nature or nurture? Are we fated to a certain level of happiness or can we change? As usual, the truth is in the middle. It appears that genetics do play a very strong role. We all come into this world with a default range of happiness. A depressively-inclined man might have a range between 55 and 73. His cheerfully-inclined friend may range from 65 to 83. Extreme events might push either out of their range entirely for a brief period, but over the long run, they will stay in their range. The conditions of our life (C) and our voluntary actions(V) determine where we tend to sit within our range.
Strong as the role of genetics is, I tend to downplay it. I’m a "no excuses," "play like a champion," "focus on what you can control" guy who fears the dangers of a self-fulfilling prophecy. As of now, science cannot determine where exactly an individual’s set point range lies. If I’ve learned anything from meditation, it is that we’re happier when we don’t identify with any specific mental state. If you let go of the assumption that you are naturally anxious, you may find that you aren’t. The same is true for unhappiness. In short, (S) is just a starting point.
Both eastern philosophy and Stoicism emphasize training ourselves to not allow the conditions of our life to define our happiness. I think of Epictetus every time my wife claims I’m being annoying: “If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation.” Marcus Aurelius puts it more simply: “You don’t have to turn this into something. It doesn’t have to upset you.” Helpful as these insights are for reframing your own challenges, husbands, take it from me, it is best to keep this sentiment to yourself.
Similarly, Buddhist teachings speak of the Two Arrows. The first arrow is the painful event - the car that backs into you, the computer crashing, the bad health report. The second arrow is the self-torment you subject yourself to. It is the downward spiral, the angry tirade, the self-loathing, the catastrophizing - all the stuff we do to make a bad event much worse. Meditation and Stoicism help us to NOT fuel the fire. They teach us to see events for what they are so that we can respond best and, often, even find that you are better off because of that first arrow.
But this is mostly (V), back to conditions.
Despite the more extreme interpretations of Stoicism and Buddhism, conditions do matter. There are many conditions in your life that can have a large influence on how happy you are. Some of these are not changeable, like your happiness set range, and, thus, are not worth much attention. But others really are transformative for your wellbeing. In The Happiness Hypothesis, psychologist Jonathan Haidt, identifies a few conditions I want to highlight: commuting, a sense of control, and relationships.
Commute: People who have long and/or stressful commutes tend to be less happy than those who don’t. Traffic is the key factor, as some people enjoy their drive, or ride. When COVID-19 lockdowns eliminated my bike commute, I felt noticeably worse. Commute matters. In deciding between a better commute and a better house, it would appear that you should lean towards the commute.
Control: In one famous study, nursing home residents on two floors both were given plants in their room and a weekly movie. On one floor, staff chose the plants and movie night for the residents. On another floor, the residents got to choose. Eighteen months later, the residents on the floor with choice were more active, alert, happy, in better health, and half as many had died.
Nietzsche said that joy is the feeling of one’s power increasing. I’ve often defined happiness as having a clear sense of purpose and feeling like you are growing and making progress towards that end. The opposite would be to feel out of control - to have authorities dictating how you spend your time and to feel pulled by forces outside of your control.
Still, as with each of these conditions, our mindset and other voluntary activities can help mitigate the negative effects of lost control. For example, I used to feel stuck and stressed by my lack of control over where I live. I moved to Fort Worth, Texas for college. After graduation, I got a job and got married. While I like the area, I had an itch to move to a part of Texas or the broader U.S. with more natural beauty and appreciation for active lifestyles. When kids came along, I felt even more desperate. I wanted activity (and less commercialism) to be the norm in their world. But my wife’s entire family is in this area. After we had kids, she was more reluctant than ever to move.
I grew to resent the Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) area and found myself feeling unnecessarily judgmental. This brought on a lot of internal strife. But I gradually let go. My wife and I began to explore some cool parts of Fort Worth and the surrounding nature. I found myself truly appreciating so many parts of where I live. In accepting the DFW as home, I grew to love it. The change in my well-being has been substantial.
Relationships: To quote Tony Robbins, “The quality of your life is the quality of your relationships.” Nothing pushes away happiness as quickly and reliably as a conflict in your relationships. Nothing makes life feel less vibrant and alive than a lack of depth in your connections. The father of sociology, Émile Durkheim, found that suicides increase as feelings of anomie and isolation increase. The opposite is also true. If you are surrounded by deep relationships and embedded in a community, you’re far more likely to thrive. Griffin, little brother, if you are reading, move to the DFW. I know you’ll love it!
Voluntary Activities (V):
If there are conditions that seem to make a difference in our happiness, it would stand to reason that one of the first voluntary activities we should invest in is figuring out what they are and adapting our lives accordingly. The first of these voluntary actions is to spend our money better.
According to Haidt, conspicuous consumption habits like fancy cars, designer clothes, and other status-signaling purchases contribute very little to our happiness. But inconspicuous consumption like spending on experiences, vacations, and a shorter commute tend to go a long way. When you go horseback riding, paint-balling, and begin attending a weekly jiu-jitsu class, you are becoming a different person. You are feeling yourself expand and seeing more of what life can be. You also create more opportunities for substantial connections.
But, of course, we can only buy so much and, beyond a certain level, money seems to have very little effect on our happiness. This is where we return to the wisdom of Stoicism that reminds us that rather than bemoan the conditions we can’t change, we should focus on what we can control.
There is no clear line where conditions (C) stop and voluntary activities (V) begin. Conditions like where you live matter, but the story you tell yourself may be even more important. Relationships matter, but the quality of our relationships is going to be determined by our behavior, which will shift dramatically based on the mindset cultivating practices we engage in, our health, and our other pursuits.
Haidt mentions a few specific practices (meditation, cognitive therapy, and Prozac) that are the most tried and true for retraining our minds. His case for meditating stands out:
“Suppose you read about a pill that you could take once a day to reduce anxiety and increase your contentment. Would you take it? Suppose further that the pill has a great variety of side effects, all of them good: increased self-esteem, empathy, and trust; it even improves memory. Suppose, finally, that the pill is all-natural and costs nothing. Now would you take it? The pill exists. It is meditation.”
As I explain in Face your Fear, I got past Pure O through meditation and a form of cognitive behavior therapy called exposure therapy. As difficult as this period was, the struggle produced a level of confidence, self-awareness, and passionate curiosity that I would not have otherwise reached. I was lucky enough to have a challenging experience that brought me first-hand experience with two of the three most effective voluntary activities.
In addition to meditation and mental practices like cognitive therapy and Stoicism, taking care of your physical needs can have a profound impact on long-term happiness. The mind is part of the body. You can’t expect the mind to thrive if you don’t take care of the body it relies upon. Considerations include the obvious - better nutrition and more movement - but also, better sleep, more sunlight, and even some more cold exposure.
But beyond these traditional self-care practices, there is a more overlooked form of (V) that may be the most profound of all - to, habitually, feed the right wolf.
“You become what you give your attention to… if you yourself don’t choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will and their motives may not be the highest.”
You take on the thought patterns and mental fixations of those around you. Best case scenario: you can surround yourself with growth-oriented, well-adjusted friends who share mutual interests and are always down for deep, nourishing conversations. If this isn’t your current reality, don’t stop looking. These people tend to be found in active pursuits like niche gyms and adult tennis leagues. You can also lean heavily on good podcasts and great books. By living in the best books, you are invited into the minds and souls of amazing people. They will change your perceptions and excite your ambitions. Our 30x30 daily habit program is a great place to start getting nourishing daily education, meditation, and movement.
Which brings us to the last big voluntary activity: working towards a purpose. There is nothing more powerful in life than having a sense of purpose and feeling yourself progress toward it. Humans are made for missions. We are made to lose ourselves in the process. But these worthy goals can’t be prescribed. They have to be found, usually through a steady stream of personal exploration, failure, and feeding the right wolf.
The Buddha taught that our desires - whether the desire to get something you deem good or to avoid something deemed bad - produce suffering. The way out was to transcend pleasure and pain by learning to not desire. But the happiness research presented by Haidt suggests that living well requires us to care deeply and suffer for a greater cause. This would seem to discredit The Buddha, but it’s not so black and white. Unmitigated passion and unfiltered emotion tend to send us spiraling out of control. We need passion and mental discipline. We need to care deeply and be able to let go. This balance will require us to learn and adapt for as long as we live. There is no formula for happiness.
Thank you for reading! This article was largely inspired by a recent reading of Jonathan Haidt’s, The Happiness Hypothesis, which I highly recommend. It is one of a few books that I’ve listened to on Audible only to immediately buy the book and read it again.