Manel Baucells This week, at the United Nations conference on Happiness, the tiny kingdom of Bhutan nestled between India and China will showcase its Gross National Happiness index (GNH) as an alternative to gross national product (GNP). In 1968, Robert F. Kennedy had said that the gross national product “measures everything… except that which makes life worthwhile.” Now, the world is coming around with United Nations resolution 65/309 — “Happiness: Towards a holistic approach to development.”
The pursuit of happiness explains the billions of dollars spent each year on consumer goods, from cosmetics and fashion apparel to computers and new cars. Who among us does not want to be happy?
But, happiness is elusive. Scientists have found that American millionaires living in huge, luxurious houses are barely happier than Masai warriors in Kenya who live in huts.
Over the past 10 years, we have examined and analyzed data and evidence from all over the world to come up with a set of laws that govern our happiness. These laws are supported by findings from scientific experiments, examples from ancient literature and pearls of wisdom from the world’s religions and spiritual practices. These laws of happiness are universal and apply to all of us. For example, we two coauthors were born and raised in different countries, India and Spain. We were reared in different religions, Hinduism and Catholicism. These large differences in culture and background make us perceive many things differently. The laws of happiness, however, apply equally to both of us.
A logical implication of our laws of happiness is the fundamental equation:
Happiness equals reality minus shifting expectations
As we try to improve our reality, by working harder so we can make more money, buy a bigger house, or drive a fancier car, our expectations also shift. We are happy for a little while, but soon enough expectations catch up with reality. At first blush, this equation paints a gloomy picture. It is no wonder that some scientists have concluded that, “Trying to be happier is as futile as trying to be taller.” Let us look on the bright side of the equation. We will give you two strategies for improving happiness and then you can come up with many more on your own.
1. Less to More (Crescendo)
You should plan your life carefully so that the gap between reality and expectations stays the same or increases. That is, the way to be happy is not just to have a lot, but to follow a crescendo strategy in life choices — less to more. On a small, short-term scale, this can be done on a vacation; rather than immediately visiting the most spectacular museum or historic site, save those experiences for the end of your trip. But as a philosophy of life, you can work to organize the chapters in your book of life from less to more (that is, follow a crescendo strategy). In raising children, for example, do not give them too much too fast. In organizations such as those with call centers or service employees, more frequent promotions associated with achieving some well-defined milestone or goal will improve employee satisfaction. Crescendo strategy is very similar to what is used in karate by awarding different color belts for progress.
2. Basic Goods
Our equation suggests that new material aspirations arise as previous ones are satisfied, making all of us work harder and harder to see ourselves in exactly the same situation all over again: wanting something new. We face a sort of emotional “global warming,” if we get used to consuming too much too soon, our future happiness is put at risk. One typical example is that of the children of wealthy parents who are not able to keep up with the lifestyle they’ve always known.
When it comes to fame and fortune, beware: The equation predicts that your expectations will also rise and any gain in happiness will be temporary.
So, if expectations catch up with reality, is there an easy and foolproof way to be happy? Basic goods escape this paradox, because expectations for these goods do not fluctuate much and these are less susceptible to social comparison. The treasure of happiness that is in reach for most of us is found in basic goods. The simplest example of a basic good is food. We will always enjoy a meal when hungry. But basic goods are present everywhere in our life. How can we tell whether a good or experience is basic or not?
TEST — Is X a basic good: Ask yourself the following two questions:
1. If nobody knew I am buying or experiencing X, would I still want X?
2. Will I enjoy X in the future, say five years from now, as much as I do now?
If the answer is yes to both questions, then X is a basic good for you.
We can think of basic goods in three categories: the needs of the body, the needs of the heart, and the needs of the mind. Food, health, shelter, sex, and rest are the needs of the body. Basic goods that meet the needs of the heart and mind are things like spending time with friends and family and listening to music we love — things that consistently make us happy.
Some people say that happiness is like a pendulum — some days you are happy, some days not, and there’s not much you can do to change that. Our view is different. We believe that happiness is like a sailboat. Indeed the wind and ocean currents influence its movements, but you have control of the rudder. Without your exerting control, the sailboat drifts. Our key premise is that happiness is a choice; and regardless of our circumstances or where we are in the world or in our lives, we can all improve our level of happiness. The control lever for extracting happiness from the equation is in your hands. We would love to hear your ideas on how to engineer a happier life.