The Three Equations for a Happy Life, Even During a Pandemic
Even by the high standards of the long essays published in The Atlantic, this piece is simply exceptional. The author teaches a class in Harvard Business School on Happiness. That is not as odd as it sounds because: “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…”
So what is the study of happiness about. In true American B-School style, the author boils it down to three equations.
EQUATION 1: SUBJECTIVE WELL-BEING = GENES + CIRCUMSTANCES + HABITS
“Equation 1 summarizes a vast amount of literature on subjective well-being, starting with the question of the heritability of happiness….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….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….
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…even the unhappiness from the COVID-19 crisis will be in the rearview mirror before very long.”
EQUATION 2: HABITS = FAITH + FAMILY + FRIENDS + WORK
“This is my summary of thousands of academic studies…Enduring happiness comes from human relationships, productive work, and the transcendental elements of life….First, faith doesn’t mean any faith in particular. I practice the Catholic faith and am happy to recommend it to anyone, but the research is clear that many different faiths and secular life philosophies can provide this happiness edge. The key is to find a structure through which you can ponder life’s deeper questions and transcend a focus on your narrow self-interests to serve others.
Similarly, there is no magic formula for what shape your family and friendships should take. The key is to cultivate and maintain loving, faithful relationships with other people. One extraordinary 75-year study followed Harvard graduates from 1939 to 1944, into their 90s, looking at all aspects of their health and well-being. The principal investigator, the psychologist George Vaillant, summarized the findings as follows: “Happiness is love. Full stop.” People who have loving relationships with family and friends thrive; those who don’t, don’t.
Finally, there’s work…One of the most robust findings in the happiness literature is the centrality of productive human endeavor in creating a sense of purpose in life…What makes work meaningful is not the kind of work it is, but the sense it gives you that you are earning your success and serving others….”
So that you read the original piece in The Atlantic, we won’t give you the final equation. In our view, it is even better than the first two equations.