My first attempt at describing the happiness algorithm starts with an equation, which feels just right as I briefly revel in uber-geek mode before the imperatives of more broadly accessible marketing copy take over:
Happiness Balance = Positive Motivations – Negative Motivations – Tension
Positive motivations move us towards things. They regulate our lives to seek things we want, appreciate what we have, prioritize what we need, give what we can. They benefit us by pulling us towards something in particular. Confusingly, they do this mostly by reducing our motivation to do other things that conflict. This can make them a painful source of unintended consequences – by motivating ourselves to move in poorly considered directions we can wreak havoc by accidentally demotivating ourselves in other areas of our lives. However, this also makes them relatively easy to change, since we can find where they point and decide to point them somewhere else.
Negative motivations move us away from things. They regulate our lives to avoid what we don’t want, fear loss of what we have and what we need, give nothing away. They benefit us by pushing us away from something in particular. Confusingly, they do this mostly by increasing our motivation to do other things, and in that capacity scientists have measured them as perhaps two to five times stronger than positive motivations. They are rather hard to manage, especially since it is tricky to get our hands around something that can be found almost anywhere but where it came from. As a result, they can do things like use the fear of a tiny harmless spider to run us smack into a big brick wall. However, this also makes them a clear sign of danger – they always drive us forcefully away from something worth avoiding, and they never help us figure out where to go instead.
Tension happens when conflicting priorities arise in our lives. It is not a conflict when one thing is more important than another, or when one thing is more meaningful than another…such decisions are easily made. Confusingly, conflicting priorities happen when one part of our lives is more important and another part is more meaningful, or when we think more about one area and spend more time and energy on another, and so forth. Strange as they may seem, those situations happen often. Something that was once time-consuming and important loses its importance but keeps consuming our time. Old automatic behaviors distract our minds from necessary dreams of what comes next. Something ignored suddenly becomes meaningful. Tension means we have a difficult but significant decision to make, and the longer we wait, the more small related decisions rise up and entangle us. But just as ongoing changes in our lives cause tension to arise, we can make decisions that cut through the tension and clear a path.
The happiness equation is a balance between these three elements. Looked at over our lifetimes, it says happiness is about moving purposefully towards things without being pushed forcefully away from things nor being entangled by tension.
If happiness were just an equation, then we need know nothing else. To increase our balance of happiness, we just increase our positive motivations, decrease our negative motivations, and reduce the tension in our lives. It tells a good story. It sounds so easy. It feels like a book. Be grateful and our positive motivations will increase. Exercise and our negative motivations will decrease. Believe in religion and we will reduce the tension in our lives. Scientists have proven that all of those things do, in fact, work to some extent. All we need is a generic checklist and a series of reminders and we will be happy, or at least happier.
Unfortunately, even though the happiness equation helps compare our situations and measure our progress, just like the printed pages of a book, it struggles to tell us each what to do in a useful and personal way, estimate what impact our decisions will have on each of us over time, and figure out how to make good decisions we can commit to.
That is why the happiness algorithm has three other important elements:
- Our priorities and motivations are an interconnected network unique to each of us.
- Our motivations and tensions are not equal – some have greater impact on our happiness.
- Our decisions are much stronger and last longer when we contemplate and make them in the company of others.
They also give meaty, geeky subjects for several more blog posts.