Math has never been my subject. When divvying up a restaurant tab makes you hyperventilate, calculating any type of equation can generally cause fits of anxiety. Mathematicians tell you that what they most love about numbers is that they make sense. Plug in this number here, and this number here and voila, the same answer, every single time. There is a certain satisfaction that comes in knowing that subjectivity will not alter an outcome. But I’ve always wondered if there is an equation for Happiness.
Is it Money + Mindfulness, Friendship + Passion, or Gratitude + Spirituality, or some configuration of each that add up to Happiness?
It’s not that I’m a hedonist, seeking pleasure at every turn. But it seems everywhere I look I am asked to find my joy. Every other article offers The Science of Happiness, The Formula for Happiness. One of my favorite fragrances is named Happy. I’ve sometimes wondered how can I possibly be sad when there are so many solutions for happiness?
I once read an article that said we expect too much happiness in our lives. That if we were to measure happiness output, we should aim for approximately 5 on a scale of one to ten. The article concluded that is a near impossibility to operate at optimum happiness on a daily basis and, that for most of us, a mid range happiness allows us to feel pleasantly engaged, upbeat and satisfied. Euphoric? No. But a solid happy.
Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, makes her living by analyzing Happiness. Her bestselling book has blossomed into a podcast, television segments, a book sequel and blog. I pored through her book, hoping to find answers to the elusive question of happiness. Here’s what I found:
- Fake it Till you Make it: Pretending to be Happy is almost as effective as actually being happy.
- Find Something you love and do it.
- Give more of yourself to others.
- Be Serious About Play.
- Make Time for Friends.
Each chapter offers practical, logical approaches to finding happiness, yet if this equation were so simple, why is it so many I know complain of being unhappy?
Like Gretchen, I’ve done my fair share of research on the subject. After a conversation with one friend who told me that happiness is overrated, I began to wonder if the search for happiness is purely an elitist construct, left to those with the luxury of time to contemplate matters of self. Did my ancestors really ask themselves if they were being serious about play, or if they were doing what they loved?
With all of my searching, I stumbled upon an answer one day much closer to home. It was one of those days when I felt as if spring would never arrive. The sun was shining but the bitter cold lingered just beneath. My 93-year old mother was visiting, and I was feeling my normal, pressed for time, frantic self, rushing to complete revisions, return emails, and pack for an upcoming trip. My mom, had awoken late, had her breakfast, and made her way unhurriedly into the sunroom to read. When I went in to check on her, I stopped at the door and watched. She sat quietly, book untouched in her lap, smiling. She was looking out of the window at the sun, the remnants of snow and the promise of spring.
“What are you doing Ma?” I asked.
“It’s so pretty outside,” she said.
And I realized then that I was looking at the happiest person I know. This was the face I’d watched my entire life, looking out the kitchen window at her next door neighbors, on a car ride, reading a book, mending clothes on our sunporch, preparing a meal. Quiet, contemplative, happy. As far as I know, she’s never written an article or a book on the subject, yet she is the essence of joy, finding pleasure in moments large and small. And then I dared asked The Question.
“Are you happy?” She looked up and paused.
“I don’t think much about being happy,” she answered, with a smile. “But I trust that if things aren’t going well, they will soon.”
In that moment, my mother revealed her life doesn’t hinge on a happiness equation. But when there are moments of joy, embrace them and have faith that there will be more to come. And just like that, my mother solved the most perplexing equation by offering up a solution that didn’t involve variables or formulas. While I sought out happiness, she lived happiness.
Or in purely mathematical terms: Life + Optimism + Faith in the Outcome = Defining Your Own Version of Happiness.