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.
Our fundamental equation is Happiness = Reality – 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. So we are happy for a little while, but then expectations catch up with reality. To maximize happiness 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.
So, if expectations catch up with reality, is there an easy and foolproof way to be happy? 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.
The treasure of happiness that is in reach for most of us is found in basic goods. Expectations for these goods do not fluctuate much and are less susceptible to social comparison. 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?
TEST – Is X a basic good: 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 two 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.
Besides emphasizing basic goods in life, happiness has a chance to blossom if we view reality as a cumulative good. With cumulative goods your actions and activities are not disconnected. 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 makes 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. Our view is different. We believe that happiness is like a sailboat. Indeed the wind and ocean currents influence its movements, but you have the control of the rudder. Without your exerting control, the sailboat drifts. The control lever for extracting happiness from the equation is in your hands.
Rakesh Sarin is Paine Professor of Management at the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-author with Manel Baucells of Engineering Happiness: A New Approach for Building a Joyful Life (University of California Press, April 2012).
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