Solve for Happy
Chapter One Setting Up the Equation
It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, tall or short, male or female, young or old. It doesn’t matter where you come from, what you do for a living, what language you speak, or what tragedies you’ve endured. Wherever you are, whoever you are, you want to be happy. It’s a human desire about as basic as the drive to take the next breath.
Happiness is that glorious feeling when everything seems right, when all of life’s twists and turns and jagged edges seem to fit together perfectly. In those often all-too-brief flickers of genuine happiness, every thought in your head is agreeable, and you wouldn’t mind if time stood still and the present moment extended forever.
Whatever we choose to do in life is ultimately an attempt to find this feeling and make it last. Some people look for it in romance, while others seek it in wealth or fame, and still others through some form of accomplishment. Yet we all know of people who are deeply loved, achieve great things, travel the world, snap up all the toys money can buy, indulge in every luxury, and still long for the elusive goal of satisfaction, contentment, and peace—also known as happiness.
Why should something so basic be so hard to find?
The truth is, it isn’t. We’re just looking for it in the wrong places.
We think of it as a destination to reach, when in fact it’s where we all began.
Have you ever searched for your keys only to realize they were in your pocket all along? Remember how you removed everything from your desk, searched beneath the couch, and got more and more frustrated the longer they went missing? We do the same thing when we struggle to find happiness “out there,” when, in fact, happiness is right where it’s always been: inside us, a basic design feature of our species.
Our Default State
Look at your computer, smartphone, or other gadgets. They all come with preferences preset by the designers and programmers. There’s a certain level of screen brightness, say, or a localized user interface language. A device fresh from the factory, set up the way its creators think best, is said to be in its “default state.”
For human beings, simply put, the default state is happiness.
If you don’t believe me, spend a little time with a human fresh from the factory, an infant or toddler. Obviously, there’s a lot of crying and fussing associated with the start-up phase of little humans, but the fact is, as long as their most basic needs are met—no immediate hunger, no immediate fear, no scary isolation, no physical pain or enduring sleeplessness—they live in the moment, perfectly happy. Even in distressed parts of the world, you can see children with dirty faces using little pebbles as toys or holding a cracked plastic plate as the steering wheel of an imaginary sports car. They may live in a hovel, but as long as they have food and a modicum of safety, you’ll see them run around hooting with joy. Even in news coverage of refugee camps, where thousands have been displaced by war or natural disaster, the adults in front of the camera will appear grim, but in the background
you’ll still hear the sounds of kids laughing as they play soccer with a knot of rags for a ball.
But it’s not only kids. This default state applies to you too.
Look back into your own experience. Summon up a time when nothing annoyed you, nothing worried you, nothing upset you. You were happy, calm, and relaxed. The point is, you didn’t need a reason to be happy. You didn’t need your team to win the World Cup. You didn’t need a big promotion or a hot date or a yacht with a helicopter pad. All you needed was no reason to be unhappy. Which is another way of saying:
Happiness is the absence of unhappiness.
It’s our resting state when nothing clouds the picture or causes interference.
Happiness is your default state.
When you use a programmed device, you sometimes change its default settings without meaning to, sometimes so much so that certain functions become more difficult to use. You install an app that frequently connects to the Internet, and your battery life decreases. You download malware, and everything starts to go haywire. The same thing happens with the human default for happiness. Parental or societal pressure, belief systems, and unwarranted expectations come along and overwrite some of the original programming. The “you” who started out happily cooing in your crib, playing with your toes, gets caught up in a flurry of misconceptions and illusions. Happiness
becomes a mysterious goal you seek but can’t quite grasp, rather than something simply there for you each morning when you open your eyes.
If we were to picture it, the times when you’re unhappy are like being buried under a pile of rocks made up of illusions, social pressures, and false beliefs. To reach happiness, you need to remove those rocks one by one, starting with some of your most fundamental beliefs.
As every person who’s ever called Tech Support knows, sometimes the first step to bringing a device back to proper functioning is to restore the factory settings. But unlike our gadgets, we humans don’t have a reset button. Instead, we have the ability to unlearn and reverse the effects of what went wrong along our path.
How did we ever get the idea that we have to look for happiness outside us, to strive for it, reach it, achieve it, or even earn it? How did we get things so terribly wrong that we’ve accepted that happiness touches our lives only briefly? How did we let go of our birthright to be happy?
The answer may surprise you: Perhaps that’s what we’ve always been trained to do.
Solve for Happy
You may have received sound advice like the kind my mother gave me, that I should study and work hard, save and be willing to defer certain forms of gratification to achieve certain goals. Her advice surely was a
major contributor to my success. But I misunderstood. I thought she meant that I needed to defer happiness along the way. Or that happiness would be the result once I had achieved success.
Some of the happiest communities in the world are actually in the poorer countries of Latin America, where people do not seem to think much at all about financial security or what we consider success. They work each day to earn what they need. But beyond that, they prioritize their happiness and spend time with their family and friends.
I don’t mean to romanticize a life that appears quaint and colorful but still falls below the poverty line. But we can learn from a mind-set that weaves happiness into each day, regardless of economic conditions.
I have nothing against material success. Human advancement has always been driven by innate curiosity, but also by the perfectly reasonable desire to store up enough resources to survive winter or a drought or a bad harvest. Thousands of years ago the more territory your family or tribe controlled and the better your skills at hunting and gathering, the better were your chances of survival. Thus the idea of sitting idle under the mango tree lost ground to the idea of innovating and hustling a bit, expanding one’s territory, and building up a surplus, just in case.
As civilization developed, more territory and more wealth usually meant better living conditions and the prospect of a longer life. Eventually, capitalism came along, reinforced by the Protestant ethic, which made prosperity a sign of God’s favor. Individual effort and individual responsibility allowed the rise of what we now call income inequality, which increased the incentive to work even harder, if only to avoid being outpaced and crowded out by others. And once you’d risen, you certainly didn’t want to fall back. Because as the competition increased, the traditional supports that had provided security through the family or village eroded.
The era just before our own saw the Great Depression and two world wars in quick succession, during which even those at the top of the income ladder had to worry about the basics. As a result, hardship shaped the priorities of an entire generation, underscoring the idea that what mattered most in life was to never endure such hardships again. The “insurance policy” most widely adopted and passed along was called “success.”
Increasingly, as the twentieth century gave way to the twenty-first, the middle class raised their children to believe that the only logical course was to spend years in educational institutions to gain skills to be deployed in a lifetime of hard work in the hope of attaining security. We learned to make this path our priority, even if it made us unhappy, counting on the promise that when we finally achieved what society defined as success, then, at long last, we’d be happy.
Now, just ask yourself this question: How often do you actually see that happen? And instead, how often do you see a successful banker or business executive who’s swimming in money but seems to be miserable? How often do you hear about cases of suicide of those who seemingly “have it all”? Why do you think this happens? Because the basic premise is flawed: success, wealth, power, and fame don’t lead to happiness. As a matter of fact:
Success is not an essential prerequisite to happiness.
Ed Diener and Richard Easterlin’s work on the correlation of subjective well-being and income suggests that, in the United States, subjective well-being increases proportionately to income—but only up to a point. Yes, it feels lousy to have to work two jobs to be able to afford a tiny apartment and a beat-up Honda while paying off student
loans. But once your income reaches the average annual income per capita, which in the United States today is about $70,000, subjective well-being plateaus. It’s true that earning less can dampen your sense of well-being, but earning more is not necessarily going to make you any happier.1
Which suggests that all the expensive things advertisers say are the keys to happiness—a better cell phone, a flashy car, a huge house, a status-worthy wardrobe—really aren’t so important.
Not only are wealth, power, and lots of toys not prerequisites for happiness; if anything, the chain of cause and effect actually works the other way. Andrew Oswald, Eugenio Proto, and Daniel Sgroi from the University of Warwick found that being happy made people roughly 12 percent more productive and, accordingly, more likely to get ahead.2
While success doesn’t lead to happiness, happiness does contribute to success.
And yet we continue to chase success as our primary goal. One of the earliest psychologists to focus attention on happy individuals and their psychological trajectory was Abraham Maslow. Back in 1933, he summed up our pursuit of success in one profound sentence: “The story of the human race is the story of men and women selling themselves short.”
While a reasonable level of success is common in our society, those who achieve the highest levels of success often have one thing in common, one thing that differentiates them from the pack. They all, almost compulsively, love what they do. Many successful athletes, musicians, and entrepreneurs have achieved their success because they love what they do so much they become experts at it just because the activity itself makes them happy. As Malcolm Gladwell puts it in Outliers, if you spend ten thousand hours doing something, you become one of
the best in the world at it.3
And what’s the easiest way to spend so many hours on one thing? Doing something that makes you happy! Wouldn’t that be better than spending a lifetime trying to reach success in hopes that it will eventually lead to happiness? At work, in our personal life, relationships or love life, whatever it is that we do, we should directly:
Solve for Happy.
What Is Happiness?
At my lowest point, back in 2001, I realized that I would never restore the happiness that was my birthright if I didn’t at least know what I was looking for.
So, being an engineer, I set out to develop a simple process to collect the data I needed to determine what made me happy. First, though, I hesitated because the technique was so simple it seemed almost childish. But then it occurred to me: if our model for the default condition of human happiness is the infant or toddler, maybe “childish,” or at least “childlike,” is not such a bad thing.
I started by simply documenting every instance when I felt happy. I called it my Happy List. You might want to do the same thing. In fact, why not take a moment right now, pull out a pencil and a piece of paper, and jot down some of the things that make you happy. As assignments go, this one’s not too tough. The list can be nothing more than a string of short, declarative sentences that get right to the point and complete the phrase
“I feel happy when ______________.”
Don’t be shy. There’s no reason to feel inhibited because no one ever has to see your list. You can include the obvious stuff, like scratching your dog under her chin or watching a beautiful sunset, and simple things like talking to your friends or eating scrambled eggs. There are no wrong answers. Write as many as you can think of.
When you’re done, at least for the first pass, go back and highlight a few items that, if you were forced to set priorities, would be at the top of the list of things that make you happiest. Those will make for a valuable short list that will prove useful in our later discussions.
Here’s some good news already: the very act of creating your Happy List makes for a very happy experience, so much so that, when you’re finished, you should feel energetic and refreshed. I work on my list at least once a week, adding new things. Not only does it put a smile on my face, but it helps me cultivate something that psychologists say contributes to happiness over the long haul: an attitude of gratitude, which happens when you acknowledge the truth about our modern lives and the fact that there is plenty to be happy about after all.
So go ahead and enjoy. I’ll go make a cup of coffee and wait for you. (By the way, I feel happy when I enjoy a quiet cup of coffee!)
The Happiness Equation
My hunch is that your list consisted almost entirely of ordinary moments in life—a smile on your child’s face, the smell of warm coffee first thing in the morning, the kinds of things that happen every day.
So what’s the problem? If the triggers for happy moments are so ordinary and so accessible, why does “finding” happiness remain such
a big challenge for so many people? And why, when we “find” it, does it so easily slip away?
When engineers are presented with a set of raw data, the first thing we do is to plot it and attempt to find a trend line. So let’s apply this to your Happy List and find the common pattern among the different instances of happiness on it. Can you see the trend?
The moments that make you happy may be very different from the moments that make me happy, but most lists will converge around this general proposition: Happiness happens when life seems to be going your way. You feel happy when life behaves the way you want it to.
Not surprisingly, the opposite is also true: Unhappiness happens when your reality does not match your hopes and expectations. When you expect sunshine on your wedding day, an unexpected rain represents a cosmic betrayal. Your unhappiness at that betrayal might linger forever, waiting to be relived anytime you feel blue or hostile toward your spouse. “I should have known! It rained on our wedding day!”
The simplest way for an engineer to express this definition of happiness is in an equation—the Happiness Equation.
Which means that if you perceive the events as equal to or greater than your expectations, you’re happy—or at least not unhappy.
But here’s the tricky bit: it’s not the event that make us unhappy; it’s the way we think about it that does.
Happiness in a Thought
There’s a simple test I use to reaffirm this concept. Call it the Blank Brain Test. It’s very simple. Recall a time when you felt unhappy, for example, I was unhappy when a friend was rude to me. Take your time and dwell on the thought, turning it over in your head and causing yourself as much unhappiness as you can. Let it linger in the same way we often do when we let thoughts like that ruin our day.
Please take a minute to find one such thought—and please accept my apology that I’m asking you to think about something that upsets you. Now apply the Blank Brain Test: Without changing anything in the real world, remove the thought—even if for just an instant. How can you do that? Engage your brain in another thought (read a few lines of text like you’re about to do here) or blast some music and sing along. Or try the Ironic Process Theory, in which you end up making yourself think about something by trying not to think about it.” Keep telling yourself, Don’t think about ice cream. Don’t think about ice cream. . . . until you find yourself thinking of nothing but ice cream.
How do you feel now? For the brief moment that you stopped thinking about your friend’s rude behavior, were you upset? I thought not. Although nothing changed but your thought, there was a change in how you felt. Your friend still was rude, but you didn’t feel as bad anymore. Do you recognize what this means? Once the thought goes, the suffering disappears!
When a rude person offends you, he can’t really make you unhappy,
unless you turn the event into a thought, then allow it to linger in your brain, and then allow it to distress you.
It’s the thought, not the actual event, that’s making you unhappy.
But thoughts are not always an accurate representation of the actual events. So a slight change in the way we think can have a drastic impact on our happiness. I know this because one of the happiest moments in my life was when my beautiful, classic Saab got totaled in a crash.
I loved that car. It was a 900 Turbo in British racing green with a beige soft top, and one day Nibal took it out and ended up in a head-on collision with a truck. My toy was gone, but I was deliriously happy because the airbags, seat belts, and all the other safety features Saab was known for had deployed exactly as planned, and Nibal walked out of the crash without a scratch. I lost my car, but so what? My beloved wife was spared!
Now consider this: if Nibal had parked the car somewhere and then it was smashed, I would have been devastated. The results would have been the same—wrecked car and safe Nibal—but my experience of it would have been very different. The event itself was irrelevant. It was the way I looked at it that mattered.
So here’s the $50 million question: If events remain as they are, but changing the way we think about them changes our experience of them, could we become happy simply by changing our thoughts?
Of course! This is what happens all the time already.
When a rude person apologizes, the apology doesn’t erase the event, but it does make you feel better, simply because the gesture changes the way you think about what happened. It brings the emotional world
inside you and the world of events outside you into better alignment and balances out your Happiness Equation. You start to agree with the world. The way life is becomes more the way you want it to be, so you feel happy again—or at least no longer unhappy.
The same turnaround happens when you find out that the rude person didn’t mean what he said or that you misunderstood what he meant. Not a syllable of what was said has changed, but the way you think about it does, balancing the equation and leaving no reason to be unhappy.
There is ample evidence that we can actually manage our thoughts. We do that whenever asked to complete a specific assignment (such as what you are now doing by instructing your brain to read these lines of text). We tell our brain exactly what to do and it complies. Fully!
Pain versus Suffering
Just as our Happy List consists mostly of ordinary stuff, there are plenty of moments in ordinary, everyday life that are not to our liking. Even babies, our model for the happiness default, have plenty of things that can make them cranky: wet diapers, being left alone too long, being hungry, not getting enough sleep. Those moments of discomfort may be short-lived, but they serve a crucial, practical purpose. The discomfort of a wet diaper prompts the baby to cry, which prompts the mother or father or babysitter to change the diaper, which means that the problem gets solved before it causes a rash. As soon as the immediate discomfort goes away, the baby goes back to being happy.
In a similar fashion, most of the everyday discomforts of adult life are not only transient but also useful. The pangs of hunger prompt you to eat. The crankiness of inadequate sleep pushes you to get to bed.
The prick of a thorn makes you pull back your finger, and the pain of a sprained ankle prompts you to give it a rest so it can heal. Even serious physical pain exists as an important form of messaging between our nervous system and our environment. Without pain to help us navigate dangers, we would inadvertently do all sorts of things to hurt ourselves, and we’d never have survived.
As much as we hate it, pain and the discomforts of life are useful!
But as it is, we hurt—we heal. You burn your finger, you put some ice on it, you’re good to go. Once the tissue starts to repair itself and the inflammation or irritation goes away, the pain has served its purpose. The brain no longer feels the need to protect the injured area, so it suppresses the signals, and good-bye pain. Which is why, barring a serious injury or a chronic condition, physical pain is generally not an impediment to happiness.
It may be less obvious, but everyday emotional pain is similar in that it also serves a survival function. Being left alone too long could be dangerous for a baby, so extended solitude becomes frightening to her and she cries to summon the caretaker. As adults, the painful feeling of isolation, also known as loneliness, signals that we may need to change our ways, to reach out more and try harder to engage. Painful feelings of anxiety can prompt us to seriously prepare for upcoming exams or presentations. Feelings of guilt or shame cause us to apologize and make amends, thereby restoring important social bonds.
When you experience emotional discomfort, you feel a little bruised for a few minutes, hours, or days, depending on the intensity of the
experience. But once you stop thinking about it, the feeling of hurt goes away. Once time passes and memory fades, you can acknowledge and accept what you’ve experienced, extract whatever lesson you can from it, and move on. Once the pain is no longer needed, it naturally fades away.
But that’s not the case with suffering.
When we let it, emotional pain, even the most trivial kind, has the capacity to linger or resurface again and again, while our imaginations endlessly replay the reason for the pain. When we choose to let that happen, that’s when we overwrite our default for happiness and reset the preference for needless suffering.
The vividness of imagination also allows us to magnify the suffering, if we choose to, by adding our own simulated pain: “I’m an idiot for hurting my friend. I’m not good for anything. I deserve to be punished and suffer.” The incremental layer of internal dialogue only leads to deeper and longer suffering by brooding over the story until it makes us miserable. But make no mistake, the misery we feel then is not the product of the world around us—the event is already over while we continue to suffer. It’s the work of our own brains. In that sense:
We let our suffering linger as a form of self-generated pain.
All the thinking in the world, until converted into action, has no impact on the reality of our lives. It does not change the events in any way. The only impact it has is inside us, in the form of needless suffering and sadness. Anticipating awful things in the future or ruminating about awful moments from the past is not the useful, instructive, and
unavoidable experience of everyday pain. This prolonged extension of pain is a serious bug in our system because:
Suffering offers no benefit whatsoever. None!
The interesting thing is, just as we have the ability to engage in our suffering at will, we also have the ability to debug our pain systems if we put our minds to it. But we don’t always make that choice.
Imagine that you need a root canal and the dentist offers you either (a) the standard procedure with a few days of recovery or (b) a root canal with additional bonus days of extensive excruciating pain. Why on earth would you ever choose (b)?
Sad to say, each and every day, millions of people do just that: they effectively go for the root canal with extras. It all begins when you accept the thought passing through your head as absolute truth. The longer you hold on to this thought, the more you prolong the pain.
The day my wonderful son left, everything went dark. I felt I had earned the right to suffer for the rest of my life, that I was given no choice but to close my door and decay. I was, in reality, given two choices: (a) I could choose to suffer for the rest of my life and it would not bring Ali back, or (b) I could choose to feel the pain but stop the miserable thoughts, do all that I could to honor his memory, and it would still not bring Ali back—though it would make the world just a little bit easier to endure. Two choices. Which would you choose?
I chose (b).
Please don’t get me wrong. I miss Ali every minute of every day. I miss his smile and comforting hug at the times when I need them most. This pain is very real, and I expect it to last. But I don’t resist it. I don’t have incessant suffering thoughts in my brain to magnify it. I
don’t curse life and act like a victim. I don’t feel cheated. I don’t feel hatred or anger toward the hospital or the doctor, and I don’t blame myself for driving him there. Such thoughts would serve no purpose. I choose not to suffer. It helps me put life in perspective and move positively forward, sending Ali my loving wishes and keeping a happy memory of him alive.
Would you make that choice in the face of tough times? Assuming you could and that it’s possible, would you make the choice to stop your own suffering? I realize that you might have endured unbearable hardship in your life, the pain of loss, illness, or lack. But please don’t let those thoughts convince you that you’re supposed to suffer, that you don’t deserve to be happy.
Happiness starts with a conscious choice.
Life doesn’t play tricks; it’s just hard sometimes. But even then we’re always given two choices: either do the best we can, take the pain, and drop the suffering, or suffer. Either way, life will still be hard.
Keep that in mind. You know what to do. Now I’ll show you how to do it.