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January 15, 2003

The Algebra of Happiness

The former math teacher in me loves this: British researchers interviewed 1000 people, crunched the numbers, and came up with an equation for happiness. What is it, you may well ask?

Happiness = P + (5xE) + (3xH)


where P is personal characteristics like outgoingness and outlook on life, E is existence (health, financial stability and friendships) and H is higher order needs (self-esteem, expectations, humor). Aside from some dubious clumping of these variables, it seems to echo Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Assuming that you get yourself well past bare survival, the parts that account for the remaining 44% of the score (P + H) are somewhat within ones own control. You can be as happy as you choose to be, they say. That squares with my experience. Big grain of salt time: one of the authors of the study, Pete Cohen, is described as a "life coach". Does that add to or lessen his credibility as a researcher? You decide.

This complements a different equation I was exposed to back at WPI, one that was proposed decades ago by Turkish cyberneticist Ali Irtem in Cybernetics, Art & Ideas:

H = G/W


Happiness is what you've Got divided by what you Want. The Buddhist approach is to minimize the denominator, while the Western approach is to maximize the numerator. That rings true, too, even though Irtem wasn't a life coach.