The Proven Formula to Happiness

Happiness is a very evasive thing. I’m not even sure what to call it. Is it an object we seek to own? A property we are trying to have? A state of being? Whatever it is, it is hard to grasp. Often, doing what we think will make us happy doesn’t make us happy. We spend most of our lives working for things and objectives that we think will make us happy, but more often than not, we are not satisfied when we get them. If we are happy, it is only fleeting, before our minds jump onto something else. “This will make me happy, really it will.” In fact, I can pretty much guarantee that even if you were to instantly get everything you wanted, you would feel a huge rush of happiness, but within a year you would feel much the same as you feel now.

The moment you stop chasing happiness you become happy.

Sandy Hyatt-James (author)

This is partly because of the Hedonic Adaptation Principle. Humankind is very good at adapting to anything. We’ve adapted to many climates to be the leading species on the earth. We’ve adapted to modern society to change our lifestyles and diets from hunter/gatherer to global communities. But this means that, when it comes to happiness, we are very quickly adapt to whatever happens to us and return to a baseline happiness. The theory runs, as mentioned in The Happiness Hypthesis by Jonathan Haidt, that a victim of a car accident who is paralysed from the neck down will be just as happy as a lottery winner, only a year after the incidents.

Each of us has a baseline happiness that, no matter what happens (almost) we will return to. This baseline is, in part, genetic. There are other influences in this baseline and ways to effect it, but this baseline is not all we experience. Activities also affect our happiness day to day. In fact, there is an equation that explains how happy we are.

H = S + C + V

Where H is the happiness we experience, S is the happiness that is set by your biology, C are the conditions that you are living in, and V is the set of voluntary actions. This equation is the product of Martin Seligman, who created the branch of “positive psychology”, or “the scientific study of what makes life worth living.” Why is this the equation? Well, if we had H=S then our happiness would be set by just our biology, and nothing more. However, it is absolutely true that there are external conditions that we live in that can make us unhappy or happy. These fall under four categories, some more broad than others.


1. Noise

Very simply, if there is loud noise that is intermittent or inconsistent where you live or work, then that is something that you will never fully adapt to. From impaired sleep (which is by itself a huge problem), to increased stress, to pausing in your speech or thought every time there is a loud noise, having a noisy residence really affects everyone. Peace and quiet really is essential to living healthily and resting properly.

2. Commute

One of the few lifestyle factors that correlates well with general happiness is length of commute. It has been proven over and over that a longer commute makes people more stressed and angrier when they get into the office, with the ideal time being 15 minutes. However, there are things that you can do to improve this without moving house or getting a new job: the manner of the commute matters. People who commute on foot, by bike or by public transport are happier, in that order, than people who drive. Still forced to drive? Try ride sharing, it has been proven that people who ride share are happier than people who don’t when driving the same route.

3. Lack of Control

This one is linked to the previous two pretty strongly. The most annoying things about noise and traffic are that we can’t control them. This aspect also appears in our jobs (not being able to pick what we work on or prioritize our own time is incredibly frustrating), and everywhere else in our lives. Recently, I bought myself a good bicycle; given I can’t drive, having a good bike is essential to being able to get where I want without relying on public transport or someone to help out with a lift. Having that element of control is very important, not just to me it seems, but to happiness in general.

4. Relationships

Our lives are surrounded in a web of relationships, and major positive or negative relationships can change your happiness in your entire life. Having an annoying workmate or an ongoing argument with your spouse can have a huge effect on your overall happiness. Every relationship has positive and negative interactions, but it appears that for a relationship to be good, there need to be five positive interactions for every negative one. This means that we ought to work on our relationships to beat this balance, which isn’t easy, but would be worth it.


What about the V? Which voluntary actions make us happy and which won’t? It appears that there are three types of action that make us happy.

1. Physical Pleasure

Yes, we are happy while eating ice cream. But we are happier when we are eating anything with other people (and happiest during sex). Physical sensual pleasures can make you happy, but only while you are doing them. Studies have shown that the other voluntary actions (below) cause a much longer lasting pleasure than physical experiences do. In fact, eating a bowl of ice-cream was shown to have no effect on the happiness of a person the day after they ate it, but the other forms did effect them.

2. Charity/Kindness

Do you remember the last time you did something good for someone else? The last charitable act? Charity or not, acts of kindness cause a longer lasting happiness to those that perform them. As said in the bible, it truly is “more blessed to give than receive.” And it is a circular path, as happier people tend to be kinder and perform more charity. But it isn’t just charity, there doesn’t need to be any volunteer work; any generosity or kindness works. Helping a friend move house, telling someone how grateful you are for them, giving someone a compliment.

3. Flow

When Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi did his huge study on what makes people happy, his major discovery was that of flow. Flow is “the feeling of complete engagement in a creative or playful activity”. You know that feeling of working on something and you get drawn into it and get “in the zone”? That’s flow. Whether it is an artistic pursuit like painting, or a technical creative one like coding, getting into that zone creates a deeper satisfaction that lasts all day. Csikszentmihalyi wrote a book called Flow: The psychology of Optimal Experience, which I would recommend to anyone interested.


What can we learn from this? By taking advantage of the states that make you happy by organizing your life around them, and of the actions that make you happy by organizing your day around them, we can all be just a bit happier, and live a bit more of a meaningful existence. Remember that no object can make anyone happy. Objects separate use from people, experiences unite us with them.