The Three Equations for a Happy Life, Even During a Pandemic

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The Three Equations for a Happy Life, Even During a Pandemic

“How to Build a Life” is a new column that aims to give you the tools you need to construct a life that feels whole and meaningful.

It seems strange to launch a column on happiness during a pandemic. The timing is, well, awkward, isn’t it?

Maybe not. We’re stuck at home; our lives on COVID time have slowed to a near halt. This creates all sorts of obvious inconveniences, of course. But in the involuntary quiet, many of us also sense an opportunity to think a little more deeply about life. In our go-go-go world, we rarely get the chance to stop and consider the big drivers of our happiness and our sense of purpose.

On second thought, maybe this is the perfect time to launch a column on happiness.

I teach a class at the Harvard Business School on happiness. It surprises some people when I tell them this—that a subject like happiness is taught alongside accounting, finance, and other, more traditional MBA fare. Nathaniel Hawthorne once famously said, “Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” This is not exactly the stuff of business administration.

But if you imagine my students sitting outside in a circle (or in a virtual circle on videochat, these days) hoping to have a butterfly land on us, you’re wrong. Here are a few of our topics: “Affect and the Limbic System,” “The Neurobiology of Body Language,” “Homeostasis and the Persistence of Subjective Well-Being,” “Oxytocin and Love,” “Acquisition Centrality and Negative Affect,” and “The Hedonic Treadmill.”

The scientific study of happiness has exploded over the past three decades. The Nobel Prize winners Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton (both at Princeton University) publish extensively on the subject. The University of Pennsylvania has a whole graduate-degree program in positive psychology, led by Martin Seligman, one of the most distinguished social psychologists in the world. A peer-reviewed academic journal called the Journal of Happiness Studies has been in operation since the year 2000 and enjoys high prestige in scholarly circles.

Religion, philosophy, and the arts have long considered happiness a subject suitable for study. The sciences have only recently caught up. This column, which we’re calling “How to Build a Life,” will draw on all these sources of wisdom in the hope of helping you identify the building blocks of happiness—family, career, friendships, faith, and so on—and giving you the tools to use them to construct a life that is balanced and full of meaning, and that serves your values.

This column has been in the works for some time, but my hope is that launching it during the pandemic will help you leverage a contemplative mindset while you have the time to think about what matters most to you. I hope this column will enrich your life, and equip you to enrich the lives of the people you love and lead.

To start us off, I want to give you three equations for well-being—equations that, in my opinion, you need to know to start managing your own happiness more proactively.
Equation 1: Subjective Well-being = Genes + Circumstances + Habits

Subjective well-being is a term of art usually used by social scientists. Why not happiness? Many scientists consider happiness as a term to be too vague and too subjective, and to contain too many competing ideas. In everyday language, happiness is used to denote everything from a passing good mood to a deeper sense of meaning in life. The term subjective well-being, on the other hand, refers to an answer to this kind of question: “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days—would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?”

Equation 1 summarizes a vast amount of literature on subjective well-being, starting with the question of the heritability of happiness. Personally, I dislike the idea that happiness is genetic; I dislike the idea that anything about my character or personality is genetic, because I want to be fully in charge of building my life. But the research is clear that there is a huge genetic component in determining your “set point” for subjective well-being, the baseline you always seem to return to after events sway your mood. In an article in the journal Psychological Science reporting on an analysis of twins—including identical twins reared apart and then tested for subjective well-being as adults—the psychologists David Lykken and Auke Tellegen estimate that the genetic component of a person’s well-being is between 44 percent and 52 percent, that is, about half.

The other two components are your circumstances and your habits. Research is all over the map on what percentage each part represents. Circumstances—the good and the bad that enter all of our lives—could make up as little as 10 percent or as much as 40 percent of your subjective well-being. Even if circumstances play a big role, however, most scholars think it doesn’t matter very much, because the effects of circumstance never last very long.

We may think that getting a big promotion will make us permanently happier or that a bad breakup will leave us permanently brokenhearted, but it isn’t true, as a casual look back on your own life would surely attest. Indeed, one of the survival traits of human beings is psychological homeostasis, or the tendency to get used to circumstances quickly, both good and bad. This is the main reason money doesn’t buy happiness: We get used to what it buys very rapidly and then go back to our happiness set point. And for those of us lucky enough to avoid illness, even the unhappiness from the COVID-19 crisis will be in the rearview mirror before very long

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