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Life is like topography, Hobbes. There are summits of happiness and success, flat stretches of boring routine, and valleys of frustration and failure. But I'm dedicating myself to experiencing only peaks! I want my life to be one never ending ascension!

What I want to do here is explain how I think about happiness, and that short description from Calvin and Hobbes (Scientific Progress Goes “Boink”) is a good starting point.

But, before I start, let me give the usual caveat about projection: I've discussed all this with other people, but in the end I can only talk about my own experience. I'm a happy person (or so I say); I like to think that's because I've figured out how to be happy, but maybe for me it's just built in—maybe my brain is messed up, and produces opiates all the time. Who knows?

Here's another caveat. As a wise young lady explained to me many years ago, there's more to emotions, and to life, than just being happy or sad. That's true, and I try to keep it in mind, but I still tend to project everything down into one dimension.

Now, what about that description above? I like how it looks at life from a distance, objectively, and how it presents life as a series of ups and downs, but I think it misses one thing, which is that happiness is relative, not absolute. You can be as successful as you want, but if the ice cream falls off your ice cream cone, you're still going to be sad.

There's a particular story I always think of, here. It happened embarrassingly late in my life, but I suspect it was the first time I understood that happiness is relative. I was complaining to a female friend of mine about how I couldn't find a girlfriend, and she said something like, well, just because I have a boyfriend doesn't mean that everything's perfect all the time.

So, we can see that the fact that happiness is relative has a corollary: there's always something to complain about. (Of course, there's also always something to be grateful for.)

Once you're thinking of life as a series of ups and downs, and happiness as relative, it's tempting to think of happiness as a derivative, but it turns out that's not right. Say you have a day that's completely uneventful except for some small nice thing that happens early on. You'll be happy for a while, but by the end of the day you'll be back to normal, right? Well, there's the problem. If happiness were a derivative, you couldn't get back to normal without experiencing a corresponding amount of sadness.

So, the way I see it, happiness and sadness are produced by events. A good event produces a certain amount of happiness, which then decays on a time scale of several hours or so; a better event produces more happiness; and, in the same way, bad events produce sadness.

That's a good description, I think, but it's not complete, because it's a bit too relative—it makes happiness and sadness sound like random fluctuations unconnected to the larger ups and downs of life. And, there is a connection. It's certainly true that money doesn't guarantee happiness, but if you're rich, you'll probably be happier, on average, than someone who isn't; and similarly for being in love, or healthy, or successful. How does that work?

First, let me restate the question. Suppose we call this larger thing that has ups and downs “quality of life”. How does quality of life translate into happiness and sadness? We aren't directly aware of quality of life, I don't think—that's the whole point of happiness being relative. What we are aware of is events, and that's where the connection is. If you're rich, say, then some of the events you experience will be related to that fact, and on average they'll be good rather than bad. Thus, you'll be happier.

In other words, quality of life provides a constant stream of small events that produce a background level of happiness against which the random fluctuations produced by larger events play out. And, yes, I do think the fluctuations are large. Even if everything is perfect, when something bad happens, you'll be sad, not slightly less ecstatic. Actually, that's not entirely true. Every once in a while I'll be in such a good mood that I can just shrug something off, but that's quite rare.

Now, just to complicate things a little more, let me point out that the background level of happiness is actually determined not by quality of life, but rather by quality of life relative to expectations. If, say, you expect that you ought to have a boyfriend or girlfriend, and you don't, you'll be sad, but if you somehow manage to lose your expectation, you won't be. Or, for a slightly more tangible example, see near the end of On Walking, where I was talking about unexpected delays in traffic.

Talking about expectations is almost the same thing as talking about what you're used to, or what you take for granted. There are important differences, however.

First, you can't really change what you're used to, that's just a matter of history, but you can fiddle around with your expectations … and with other people's, too. At the consulting company I used to work for, we called the latter “setting expectations”, and it was a very useful thing; but the idea is really far more general than that. In any situation where people interact, if everybody knows what to expect (and accepts it), then nobody will be sad.

Even if nobody is fiddling around with them, your expectations still may not match what you're used to. You might have unrealistic expectations acquired from, say, the media, or anywhere else where you can find memes. Or, you might have expectations left over from a previous situation, as in the cheese story I mentioned in Rationalization.

Actually, having expectations left over is entirely natural. If you're put into a new situation, you don't just adapt to it instantly; it takes time for your expectations to come in line with the new reality (assuming they do so at all). I imagine them following a decaying exponential, like a damped oscillator, but that's just me; see also Fossilization.

Now, here's a surprising thing: expectations come in line far more quickly when they're moving upward. In other words, as yet another friend said, we take the good things for granted so very quickly. I don't have a lot of evidence for that, but I'm pretty sure it's true.

The best evidence I have is another story. When I worked at that consulting company, I'd intentionally moved to an apartment nearby so that I'd have a short commute, and it was short, about five minutes. For a few months, though, I had to commute an hour and a half to a client site. When that started, I was keenly aware of the commute, and hated it, for probably a whole month; but when it ended, I bet it wasn't two days before I was taking the short commute for granted. Every once in a while I'd think, “ha ha, isn't this great”, but usually not.

So, there you have my theory of happiness, such as it is. Happiness is mostly relative, produced by the random events of the day, but with a small bias due to quality of life relative to expectations.

Finally, here are some thoughts about how the theory can be applied.

Among the events of the day, there will be both good and bad … that's the point of happiness being relative. In other words, there will always be things that make you both happy and sad. But, remember what I said about happiness and sadness decaying on a time scale of hours? I think you can work around that. If you keep reminding yourself of the good things, but let go of the bad things, maybe you can make sadness die out quicker than happiness. On the other hand, if you don't dwell on the bad things a little, you'll never learn anything from them.

One surprising consequence of the theory is that routine events—the constant stream of which produces the bias—should mostly be bad. The reason is simple: when there are good routine events, it usually won't be long before your expectations rise to include them. Anyway, that's not the point. The point is, a good way to make yourself happier is to recognize and eliminate routine annoyances.

If you think about it, that's almost the same as saying that a good way to make yourself happier is to improve your quality of life, which is just about content-free. But, it is not the same, because it emphasizes that quality of life is in the details. If there's a squeaky door that bothers you, fix it; and if there's a piece of trash you keep seeing, pick it up. That is the kind of routine annoyance I am talking about.

The idea of eliminating routine annoyances reminds me of how, in game theory, you minimize your losses rather than maximize your gains. Of course, I also said that's not much fun.


  See Also

  Positive and Negative
  Restaurant Effect, The

@ August (2003)