The Happiness Equation


People believe success will make them happy, but it won’t.

Society embraces a backward model of happiness. People grow up believing that happiness is the result of succeeding and achieving your goals. But when most folks achieve their dreams, they just create grander, new goals, and they don’t always feel happy doing it.

People struggle to be happy because human beings spent the first 200,000 years of their history engaged in a battle for survival in a violent, competitive world. Because their lives depended on being aware of danger, early people constantly scanned their world for threats. Doing that in the modern world doesn’t give you any survival benefits. It just gives you stress. 

“Just like driving a car, throwing a football or doing a headstand – you can learn to be happier.”

Happy people are three times more creative, make nearly 40% more sales and are 31% more productive than unhappy people. University of Kentucky researchers studied the autobiographies of nuns from the 1930s and 1940s and discovered that those who used more positive language lived longer. They concluded that a positive attitude correlates with longevity. 

People’s circumstances comprise only 10% of what makes them happy. Genetics play a partial role in whether you’ll be happy, but you can take specific, intentional actions to boost your level of contentment and happiness. And while you can’t always control your situation, you can control your perception of it.

Perform seven actions to train yourself to be happy.

Positive psychology – a new, growing field – applies the scientific method to behavior problems.

“If you can be happy with simple things, then it will be simple to be happy.”

Perform these seven actions for two weeks, and your mood will improve: 

  1. Take a half-hour walk three times a week. People who are more physically active demonstrate greater enthusiasm and excitement.
  2. Write for 20 minutes about a positive experience. This prompts you to remember and relive things that make you happy.
  3. Perform five random acts of kindness each week.
  4. Take breaks from cellular devices and the internet.
  5. Work on projects that challenge you, but for which you have an aptitude. Aim to reach a state of “flow,” during which your work fully absorbs you.
  6. Meditate to reduce stress and to bolster self-awareness and compassion.
  7. Each week, write down three to five things for which you are grateful.

Internal rewards work better than external rewards.

People who find motivation in external rewards — such as money or fame — are less happy than those who find inspiration in internal rewards. Doing things for external rewards is risky because when rewards dwindle, your positive feelings may fade.

“When you don’t feel like you’re competing with others, you compete only with yourself. You do it for you. And you do more, go further and perform better.”

You can experience three different types of success: commercial, social or the internal feeling of success called “self-success.” People with a sense of self-success feel satisfied and proud of their accomplishments – even if these are small victories, such as baking a birthday cake for a child. To experience self-success, you must be confident, which requires thinking highly of yourself and of others. To become more confident, examine the things in your life you like to hide from others, and stop hiding them. Stop apologizing for your perceived flaws. Accept yourself without judgment. Never internalize anyone’s criticism.

Learn to have enough and to not want more.

The brain’s amygdala scans your environment for problems. When it categorizes something as a problem, it triggers the release of stress hormones and adrenaline. Rational thought takes place in your prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that calms you down. People engage in an internal battle between their stress-triggering amygdala and their rational minds. To boost your happiness, control your reactions to your emotions, and be conscious of when your amygdala triggers an unnecessary “fight or flight” response. 

“We scan the world for problems because that led to our survival. And our current design of the world only reinforces and grows these negative lens feelings.”

Americans engage in a second internal battle every day: They are torn between the constant desire for more and the feeling they already have enough. American society became desire-based and obsessed with the idea of having more after World War I. Due to new methods of mass production, manufacturers created large numbers of new technologies, such as washing machines and radios. Advertisers then pushed Americans to buy products by capitalizing on their desires to consume more goods.

Realize that wanting more won’t make you happy. Focus on the idea of having enough. Don’t lose perspective on how lucky you are to be alive and to have the wealth you already have. If you earn more than $5,000 a year, you’re already richer than half the people on the planet.

Don’t retire. Instead, find your ikigai, or life’s purpose.

Retirement is a flawed idea. It relies on the false assumptions that doing nothing fulfills people, and that society can afford to have people do nothing for decades. Germany invented the idea of retirement, a concept that doesn’t exist in many places outside the developed Western world. People work for four reasons: Social connections make you happy, working creates structure, learning new things stimulates your mind and working with others makes you part of something bigger than yourself. Retiring keeps you from having these sustaining experiences.

“The freedom you feel from a satisfying job beats the oppressing ache of emptiness any day.”

People who live in the Okinawa Islands have the longest, disability-free lives on Earth. Their language doesn’t have a word for “retirement.” They focus on finding their ikigai, or reason for waking up each day. Having such a purpose correlates positive accomplishments and with longevity.

Researchers at the Tohoku University Graduate School of Medicine asked 43,000 Japanese people if they had an ikigai in their life. Those who did at the beginning of the study were more likely to be educated, employed and married. They were less likely to die over the course of the study. Retiring hampers people from embracing their ikigai and having a sense of purpose. 

Calculate your true hourly wage and overvalue your time.

While Harvard MBAs earn roughly $120,000 a year when they graduate, they don’t make much more per hour than an average, middle-class wage when you consider that they work 80 to 100 hours per week – double or triple the hours of most Americans. A teacher, a Harvard MBA and a retail assistant manager all earn the same amount of money — $28 dollars per hour — when you calculate their true hourly wage.

Consider how you want to spend your time, and how much time you want to spend working. People don’t always measure success in terms of a higher annual salary. You can measure it by spending each hour of your day doing things you love.

“Think about whether it’s important to you to feel the pride of a freshly shoveled driveway, the joy of watching your kids discover a new word or see the tulips you planted in the fall finally bloom in the spring.”

Evaluate your relationships with the people you spend the most time with, whether they’re your co-workers, managers or family. Track your happiness and someone else’s on a chart to calculate your “happiness percentage.” Notice what percentage of the time both of you are happy, and what percentage of the time one of you is happy while the other is unhappy. The energy and moods of the people you spend time with are contagious. Spending time with people who are equally or more happy than you might prevent you from feeling drained by negative people, and it can increase your happiness levels.

Avoid burnout by creating space to do nothing.

People burn out when they spend too much time focusing on thought-based and action-based pursuits at the same time. Avoid burnout by making time to do and think less. When you create space for lower-intensity activities, you may find you are more creative. People often get their best ideas when they’re not working – perhaps in bed, in the bathtub or on the bus.

“Do only nerds do their homework Friday night? Maybe. But they’re the ones with the whole weekend to party.”

Create space by examining your to-do list and all the small decisions you make each day – like what you want for lunch. Figure out which decisions and tasks you want to automate, which you want to create rules for to streamline decision making and which demand immediate, decisive action. This will reduce the number of items you spend time thinking about and debating. Cut down the time you allot to completing tasks. This will force you to increase your organizational skills and focus. To boost productivity, give yourself an hour daily to focus on a specific project. Eliminate interruptions. Close the door to your workspace and make yourself unavailable to the world via your devices.

Move past fear to do what you want.

Most people believe they need to have ability and motivation before they can accomplish something new, but this is a faulty mind-set. Rather than waste time planning or deliberating, do the thing you want to do. For example, if you want to speak at company meetings, but you feel nervous, don’t spend time practicing in front of the mirror – speak up.

Once you start doing what you want, your business will gain momentum, even if you sometimes fail. You can make it easier to do the things you want by taking small, 30-second actions to push yourself toward your goals. For example, if you want to learn to swim, go ahead and pay online for classes so you feel compelled to go.

Your most important relationship is with yourself.

Learning to live authentically and to love yourself as you are, with all your unique quirks, leads to happiness. Living out of alignment with your true self causes mental confusion and keeps you into a state of cognitive dissonance.

“There is nothing more satisfying than being loved for who you are and nothing more painful than being loved for who you’re not but are pretending to be.”

People who are dying often regret living a life that others wanted them to live, rather than living the life they wanted for themselves. Avoid this regret by being true to who you really are. This may feel uncomfortable, but you’ll be thankful in the end. To live in alignment with your true self, discover your authentic passion by taking these steps:

  1. Consider what you do when you have free time on Saturday mornings. This will give you a clue as to where your true interests lie.
  2. Dive into new situations, and observe how they make you react and feel. This will help you determine whether your authentic self likes this new activity.
  3. Compare yourself to the five people with whom you spend the most time. They probably reflect your values and qualities. For example, if you want to gauge your confidence or leadership skills, average out the skills of the people in your inner circle. They’ll probably reflect your own.

No advice is always true.

The most important goals in life are: wanting nothing, because that results in contentment; embracing the freedom to do anything you want; and realizing you already have everything – since that translates into being happy.

“The answers are all inside you. Think deep and decide what’s best. Go forth and be happy.”

You will encounter advice from various experts, and much of it will conflict. No advice is 100% true in all situations. Guidance is helpful only when it triggers an understanding you already have. Don’t follow advice uncritically. Tune into your inner wisdom and listen to yourself.

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