Reverse Engineering Happiness

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The other day, I asked everyone on Facebook and Twitter about their thoughts on the equation for happiness. Essentially, if you had to break happiness down to a single, mathematical formula, what would it look like?

(I don’t know why I was so naive to post this on Saturday afternoon while everyone’s chugging back beers before college football games. I received some great responses.)


(Health + Love) ^ Bacon = Happiness

Love + Goals = Happiness

Now, I think that these responses accurately represent the general perspective. Each combines some from of experiences, individuals, fortunate circumstances (money, objects, achievements, goals), and even bacon.

Overall, this sounds pretty true. In order to be ‘happy’, we need to be surrounded by people that genuinely care about our best interest whether it be family or friends. We also benefit from having the appropriate resources to provide for our family and experience a few of the luxuries in life: a nice car, snazzy clothes, a huge house to clean, etc.

So, by that reasoning and logic, we would need to increase all of those variables to lead to a greater level of happiness.

I would tend to argue that we’re going about it all wrong.

In fact, I think we’re going about it backwards.

Let me explain.

My Equation for Happiness

Focusing on the elements of happiness first, then hoping they lead to the desired result later is a bit like staring at a pile of wood and hoping to build a house without first picturing what you want to build.

Is it going to be two-story? How many bedrooms will it have?

Traditional thinking is backwards. We’re examining the smaller pieces and forming a whole. In reality, we would be much more successful at achieving happiness if we worked backward, looking at the finished product then the elements we need to get there.

Let’s take this general equation for happiness that includes the gist of everyones’ suggestions from above:

Happiness = Experiences + Luxuries + Relationships

Whether you agree with all of the terms used in the equation above is irrelevant. The point is that our happiness is constructed of certain elements that form our life. Those elements can be further broken down like this:

Happiness = (Work + Vacations + Free time + Goals) + (Money + House + Car + Clothes) + (Family + Friends)

All of those subitems are things that require investments of our time – even “free” time. In order to have free time, you must work at something to allow yourself to have time off.

Happiness: Think Sdrawkcab

So, the majority of individuals are working their tail off to increase all of the subitems – more money, a bigger house, a better car, a trip to Jamaica – in hopes that those items will equate to happiness in the end.

We’re all staring at a pile of wood.

What if we worked in reverse order? What if we first pictured our happiness?

Take a second to perform this exercise:

Close your eyes, wherever your are (unless you’re driving). Take a moment to define happiness for you. What does it look like? Who is it with? What are you doing? Try to think of the happiest moment in your life. Are you driving? What are you wearing? Be as vivid as possible. Once you have that image in your head, try to freeze it in your mind remembering as many details as possible.

Now, take a second and compare that to your current life. Are they similar? If not, what is different? How are you making “happiness” happen?

If you’ve ever listened to a business podcast or read a business book, you’ll likely hear the term “work-life balance”. That can mean different things to different people. But, one thing everyone can agree on is that for each minute you spend working on attaining more of the subitems on the above list, you’re sacrificing something else whether it be a vacation or just time with your family. There will always be an opportunity cost for our actions. We’ll have to give up something to achieve something else.

In the business world, you’ll often here individuals comparing “a lot” of money versus “enough” money. That’s an important distinction. Making “a lot” of money surely means you’re being successful, but it also means that you may have to work more, therefore foregoing another opportunity.

Rather than focusing on achieving as many of the subitems as possible (money, cars, clothes, friends, etc), focus your attention on your scenario for happiness – your ideal life – and then work backwards.

Figure out how much money you would need to make to do the things you want to do.

Find out what kind of car you would truly be happy driving. It may not be a Mercedes. Why waste extra money on luxury because everyone else tells you that it’s the cool thing to do?

What friends do you need surrounding yourself for true happiness? Are you using extra time keeping up with acquaintances that, in ernest, don’t care about you?

When working backwards, we can develop a plan to achieve exactly what we need to be happy. We’ll waste less time on working our tail off to accumulate items that simply takes away from the items we truly care about.

I encourage you to keep that image of true happiness at the front of your mind at all times. That’s what you’re working towards. Are you getting closer or farther away?

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