Social psychologists – in particular, the positive ones – have a formula for happiness. Here it is: H=S+C+V. Happiness equals your natal Set point, plus your life Conditions, plus the Voluntary activities you choose to engage in.
It’s useful to try to quantify happiness, I think. Palliative caregivers quantify pain by asking patients to hold up fingers to indicate their discomfort level – generally anything more than a three receives pain relief medication. For happiness, anything less than seven fingers probably requires our attention. But to what should we be attending? To the elements in the formula perhaps? While I know of no neuroscience research measuring the efficacy of these specific elements, my hypothesis would be that all three, when operating well, optimize neural development and integration.
Set Point, Life Conditions and Voluntary Activities
The more we attend to these Big Three for ourselves, and thus model them for our children, the higher the probability that we will all be hiking the Happy Trail. Set point refers to the biological gifts for happiness that we were fortunate enough to be genetically endowed with. Positive psychologists don’t think we have much of a shot at changing those genetic gifts, but as I’ve written about earlier, epigeneticists think we do. Interestingly, some of the things that impact which proteins genes express turn out to be… the C in the Happiness Formula: our life conditions.
The Conditions for Happiness
Jonathan Haidt, in The Happiness Hypothesis, lists five life conditions that research suggests I might want to address in order to be happier. “Noise, especially noise that is variable or intermittent, interferes with concentration and increases stress.” In other words, noise helps turn allostasis into allostatic load. My increasing need for quiet as I’ve gotten older, would seem to suggest this is indeed an organic happiness factor. (I could feel my glucocorticoids already readying in advance of Friday’s Independence Day fireworks!)
A Long Way to Go and a Short Time to Get There
The second happiness factor that Haidt identifies is the length of time and the distance I have to commute to work. People who have to drive in heavy traffic arrive at work with higher levels of stress hormones in their blood than I do. In my last job I arrived at work in less than five minutes driving on empty city streets at six in the morning across the Stanford campus. Often I would ride my bike (which sometimes turned out to be more stressful than driving – I once took a header over a four foot drop on the trail around Lake Lagunita; another time I toppled into a drainage ditch trying to use my gate security card; and another time klutzily drove into a new metal security bollard that I failed to see in the dark). I currently work mostly at home, thus significantly shortening the commute even further and usually making it even less stressful.
Who’s in Charge?
The third condition for happiness turns out to be how much control I feel I have over things in my life. If I feel victimized by things like my long commute or the oppressive noise in my community, things that I am unable to influence or change, then I am not likely to be very happy. This is generally true for our children as well. In a seminal experiment on the benefits of feeling in control in one’s life, Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin provided plants and free movies to nursing home patients. The floors where the patients got to choose their own plants and select their own movies had better health overall and 50% fewer deaths! Seems like it’s good to have some control, and the benefits are signficant.
It’s a Crying Shame
Research suggests that improvements in personal appearance tend to also lead to lasting increases in happiness. While breast augmentation or reduction heads the list of improvements, I’m thinking I might just settle for a haircut and losing a few pounds. Haidt suggests that underlying this need are feelings of shame over what people feel are personal deficiencies. That makes sense – if I don’t like the way I look, I’m not going to be all that happy. And it’s probably going to significantly affect the last, and most important happiness requirement…
Strong, Positive Relationships
Finally, and not surprisingly, positive relationships are the “trump” condition required for high levels of happiness. But how many, and with whom? And to what degree of intimacy? The answer is somewhat circular, of course: as many and to the degree that makes you – and those you are in relationship with – happy.
Gaming the Weather
Interestingly, weather is not a factor in Haidt’s happiness hypothesis, mostly because people appear to adapt over time to seasonal weather conditions. But I suspect more and more, weather will need to be factored into the formula, and neuroscience suggests something you can do for your brain to increase happiness during foul weather – you can play this research-derived computer game for only five minutes a day: Mind Habits. Which would make the new happiness formula, H=S+C+V+HF.