March 18, 2003    Psychology

Quantitative Analysis of Happiness

What is happiness? This question is different from: What makes you happy? I have no interest in the latter, for it is entirely subjective. We can semantically and philosophically argue what constitutes happiness, but there is a certain amount of commonality in the way we use the word “happiness” in ordinary situations. This commonality, I simply pretend to be fixed in meaning in order to present the following arguments. When you see a friend whom you haven’t seen in a while, you might exchange a few pieces of information about the state of your lives. After that, you might ask, “Are you happy?” And, your friend replies, “Yes, I am.” Then you say, “Good, that’s what counts.” The happiness that I want to discuss is this particular one.

I believe this happiness is largely chemical and is quantifiable. It directly correlates with the rate of change in the quality of life. It is commonly assumed that happiness correlates with the absolute level of quality of life, but this is consistently contradicted by the visible unhappiness of highly successful people. From these contradictions, we wrongly infer that successful people are somehow lacking in some other areas of life. That is, we would like to believe, for instance, that successful people are superficial, and that they are suffering from their own superficiality. The reason why we ordinary people can be happier than they are, we further assume, is because we attend more to substance. This too is constantly contradicted by casual observations of people around us. There are many substantial, profound, intelligent people who are unhappy. It does not take a genius to realize that attending to substance is not the key to happiness.

As I said above, happiness is the first derivative in the graph of progress in life. If our ups and downs were to be graphed over time (y being quality of life, and x being time), a derivative taken at any point in time would directly correlates with the sense of happiness. To put it simply, it is the slope that counts, not the absolute position of the quality of life. In fact, the level of quality of life is quite irrelevant to our sense of happiness.

Take Michael Jackson for instance. Currently his career is faltering. In terms of slope, it is negative and is sharp. The fact that he is still rich and famous is irrelevant to how unhappy he feels about his own predicament. You may argue that his financial security makes his fall an easier process than how he would feel if he were poor, but this sense of “security” is also a matter of derivative, not of absolute. What you consider “secure” isn’t necessarily the same as what Michael Jackson considers secure. Depending on what you are used to, the change in the degree of security is what we perceive to be “secure” or “insecure.” The US, for instance, is a much more secure country to live in than, say, Israel. From the perspective of the Israelis, what we consider “High” on our national terror alert is probably equivalent to “Low” on their scale. When we feel “secure” is not when we reach “Low” on this scale, but when the level goes down. If it goes from “High” down to “Elevated,” although it is technically still dangerous, we feel “secure” because some type of progress has been made.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, if an illegal alien who works at a deli for below minimum wage receives a Green card and, as a result, finds a job that pays a minimum wage, he would probably feel as happy as if Michael Jackson received a Grammy.

There are many aspects of our lives that contribute to the overall quality of our lives: physical health, intellectual abilities, financial state, fame, reputation, talent, personal life, and so on. Many of these aspects are closely intertwined, physical health being one of the most influential aspects. When I suffered a mysterious liver problem, what concerned me was not the absolute state of my liver, but the rate and the direction of the change. For a while, I saw my liver problem become increasingly worse, and hoped for a turn of direction. Once it stabilized, I felt a certain amount of happiness, and when it started to get better, I was almost as happy as if I were fully recovered.

Although our physical health starts to decline somewhere in our mid-20s, most other aspects continue to improve. As long as some aspects are improving, we can derive a certain amount of happiness from them, even if others are declining. We feel a sense of despair when all of them start to decline. This is a feeling most of us rarely experience. It is frightening no matter how successful you are. It is said that Britney Spears is experiencing a decline in her career. This must be a difficult situation for someone of her age. When someone of her level starts to fall, all aspects of life start to crumble with a great momentum, and this is very difficult to turn around. Debbie Gibson has tried very hard without much success.

If happiness is your concern, it should be relatively easy to control. Your focus should be on the slope, rather than on the level of quality of life. Though there is technically no limit to the rate of change, there are limits at both ends of the scale of quality of life. At the bottom is death, and at the top is someone like Bill Gates or George W. Bush. Given these limits, we can deduce that even for Bill Gates, the amount of happiness he can feel in his whole life is limited. The faster he climbs at a younger age, the less room for happiness he leaves for the rest of his life. Since there is only so much more space left for him to climb, it is difficult for him to sustain a positive slope. More often than not, from the laws of probability, the slope becomes negative. In this sense, the closer you are to the bottom, the more in favor the probability of you feeling happy is.

In the end, happiness is a superficial feeling. Much like the feeling of orgasm, it is nothing deep or profound. It can be to a large degree manipulated, and is a matter of luck. As long as you have what it takes to keep the rate of change positive, you will be a happy person. Ultimately happiness is nothing to brag about.

Addendum (3/24/03):

The more you expect and strive for a quick success in life, the more unpredictable and uncontrollable you make your own happiness. Think of musicians who are striving to be Top-40 artists. Those who risk everything to be successful would face a life full of intense joy and disappointments, far more unpredictable and uncontrollable than the lives of the average people.

If you believe that happiness is about the absolute level, you want to be at the top as quickly as possible so that you can enjoy the rest of your life in bliss. But as I explained above, this does not work. Because of this misguided notion, you inadvertently make your own life more unpredictable and uncontrollable. In the long run, you would be better off if you simply focused on improving your life one step at a time, by making sure that you make some sort of progress in your life every day, no matter how small that may be. This is a much more controllable situation.

I do not mean to imply that this is how everyone should live. This is a logical deduction based on my theory of happiness, and applies only to those who seek happiness as the primary goal in life.