The Happiness Formula #1 - Drop It Like It's Hot

I’ve written several posts about happiness. In comparison to these, the “Happiness Formula” is an ongoing project. My first note dates from late July 2013 so it’s been 8 months since the Formula reflection started. Am I happy today ? It’s north of happiness. It’s akin to bliss. It's the most valuable thing I have today. But I'm not holding on to it. What I’ve learnt along the way makes it so I can't help but to write this series. I hope you enjoy it.


In a post from December 2011 called “Hacking Happiness : A dog named Tintin”, I tried to draw a “Happy Scale”. At that time, I had reached the conclusion that “To be happy, you have to limit your ambitions / expectations”. This way you’re certain to reach your goals. All the posts is this series go past that conclusion I believe.


Regarding the graph, the question was whether you should raise the base black line through a vertical translation or try and add more spikes. I’ve added a line of a different colour (beautiful purple c) to indicate the solution lies on another level.

Consider the spikes. Try and think of the last one you’ve experienced and how quickly the positive feeling faded away. We are very sensitive to change, maybe that is the reason why we confuse excitement with happiness.

Humans are very sensitive to change: When we get a raise or commission, we really enjoy it – but we adapt at incredible speeds to our new wealth. Some studies have shown that in North America additional income beyond $75,000 a year ceases to impact day-to-day happiness.
— ASAP science

We underestimate our adaptability or emotional immunity, not only to negative events but also to positive ones. A winning lottery ticket won’t keep me happy indefinitely. The root problem here is Focalism. We focus on future events and hence end up overestimating the happiness a given event will generate. This is the definition of the hedonic treadmill :

Hedonic treadmill : The supposed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.
— Wikipedia

Though we're conscious it's crazy to step on that treadmill, what keeps us coming back is our Focalism on future events' positive output. It's very much an addicts' approach, hence the "shoot" analogy.



I’m going to be radical and direct. Buckle up :) “Start with why” says Simon Sinek. So let’s go - Cut the bullshit >:( You think a new job will make you happy? Admission in a graduate program or a new career? A new phone? A girlfriend? Seeing your sister or your brother or your friend again? You think a raise or a bonus will make you happy? You think a “yes” from some organisation will change your life? You think 8 pounds or kilos less will transform your life and your well-being? Spikes. All the above are spikes, bound to be drowned and diluted by the tread of time. All of them will produce short-lived spikes of positive feelings. Happiness is something else. It’s the base line.


Wait, am I saying one shouldn’t aim for a better career? Shouldn’t I launch a company that will change the world? Am I arguing against ambition here? Resounding No. I’m arguing against Focalism. Or plain delusion. Nothing in the future will raise your level of happiness. If you don’t find reason enough to be happy now, you aren’t happy and won’t be. I told you I’m going to be radical.

At this stage, if I may guess your thoughts, it might seem as if happiness is an "emotion in motion”. Not a goal but a constant companion. You might be thinking happiness is "the pursuit of happiness”. Not the destination but the journey itself. This is a four chapter blog series :) Think I’d reach  my conclusion already ? Non.

We live in a constant feedback loop. Our lives are a navigation between Consciousness and Choice. What needs to be avoided is for the loop to be a feedback of discontent.

  • Consciousness = I really don’t like my phone / my wife / my life / my body / my job / my friends
  • Choice = I am miserable and need to change all of the above

From one angle, happiness is the daughter of the feedback loop. It’s a thought pattern. A mental habit. To enjoy the process or the journey then, one needs to have the upper hand in the feedback loop. Do you or does anyone in your entourage complain ? Great. Not so great actually, no but see complaint as a negative feedback loop. It usually massacres happiness for the complainer and his surroundings.


In our confrontation with Focalism, we’re not exactly at an advantage. As this fortunately popular article from the Huff post points out, we’re the generation whose expectations are set as high as they can be (due to the past generation’s accomplishments and encouragements) and challenged as hard as possible due to the global economic situation and a constant impression that others are doing better than us, courtesy of social networks.

Don’t resist ambition. Be amazingly ambitious. Your madness is an asset. For you and the world. As the author concludes however : 1) Don’t think you’re special / you’re not a unique snow flake 2) Ignore everyone else. See the excerpt below:

Unhappy Lucy, trying to reach for the Unicorn :(

Unhappy Lucy, trying to reach for the Unicorn :(

Paul Harvey, a University of New Hampshire professor and GYPSY expert, has researched this, finding that Gen Y has "unrealistic expectations and a strong resistance toward accepting negative feedback," and "an inflated view of oneself." He says that "a great source of frustration for people with a strong sense of entitlement is unmet expectations. They often feel entitled to a level of respect and rewards that aren't in line with their actual ability and effort levels, and so they might not get the level of respect and rewards they are expecting.”


Wait. Look at your emotions when you read this! Stop for a second. Read the sentence again: "They often feel entitled to a level of respect and rewards that aren't in line with their actual ability and effort levels, and so they might not get the level of respect and rewards they are expecting.” Did you catch that feeling? You actually felt bad. As if truly not entitled to what you’re aiming for. Unworthy and somewhat delusional.

  1. There’s nothing wrong with that, I know I felt the same way
  2. Look at it and acknowledge it / Accept it as part of you right now
  3. Let it go, like a heavy bag. Let that feeling go. Not by trying to forget it. But realising it isn’t you. It is at a distance from you. Drop it like's it hot. It is something else. It isn't you. See?

The above exercise is a glimpse of what I’ll be trying to convey in the next 3 posts. To take the reflection up a notch and dissect happiness a bit before we wrap this up. Economists distinguish between stable and unstable equilibriums. As stable equilibrium is one that will get back to equilibrium whatever the shock. Imagine a ball at the bottom of a valley. An un-stable equilibrium is one that will just go away, never to return the second a shock occurs. Unless you put in a lot of effort to get it up there again I guess. It’s extremely fragile. The spike approach to happiness is that un-stable equilibrium. What will follow is a dive into transiting from unstable happiness to stable happiness.