A refinement of my earth-shattering happiness formula.

Despite its simplicity, it took me a huge amount of thinking to come up with my revolutionary happiness formula: being happier requires you to thinking about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right. (Ok, I know the formula sounds a bit banal, but zoikes, it took me a lot of hard work to recognize this essential truth.)

In other words, to be happier, I need to boost my good feelings, put a stop to my bad feelings, and pursue my right feelings.

But I felt that some element was missing from this formula…something that described the process of being happy, the frame of mind, or the conditions…I couldn’t put my finger on it.

I wanted to account for the fact that people seem programmed constantly to be striving, to be stretching toward happiness. For example, studies show that people think that they will be slightly happier in the future than they are in the present. And research shows that a sense of purpose is very important to happiness. And why do happiness researchers report that children don’t make people happier, and yet parents insist that their children are a major source of joy?

I thought about William Hazlitt’s observation, “Indolence is a delightful but distressing state: we must be doing something to be happy,” and Bertrand Russell’s observation, “To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.” I agree, but my formula didn’t account for these observations.

I searched for the missing concept—was it striving? Advancement? Purpose? None of these words seemed right. My formula wasn’t complete.

Then a reader posted a quotation from William Butler Yeats. “Happiness,” wrote Yeats, “is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.”

That word, “growing,” snapped everything into place. Of course. Growth. Growth helps explain the happiness brought by children, by gardens, by pay raises, by stamp collections, by training for a marathon, or learning to use PhotoShop, or cooking your way through a Julia Childs cookbook.

My father was a great tennis player and played a lot when I was growing up. At some point, he started playing golf, and over time, gave up tennis. I asked him why. “My tennis game,” he explained, “was gradually getting worse, but my golf game is gradually improving.”

The hedonic treadmill means it’s easy to grow accustomed to some of the things that make you “feel good.” An atmosphere of growth offsets that. Anyway, many experiences that involve growth aren’t susceptible to adaptation at all.

So my new-and-improved formula for happiness is this: being happier requires you to thinking about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

The wording is clunky, but I think I’ve hit on something important.

To feel happy, it’s not enough to have fun with your friends, and not feel guilty about yelling all the time, and feel like you’re working in the right job; you also need to feel growth—a sense of learning, of betterment, of advancement, of contributing to the growth of others.

This is certainly true in the spiritual sense, and I do think that material growth is very satisfying, as well. As much as folks say that money can’t buy happiness, for example, it’s gratifying to have more money this year than you had last year. And it gives a boost to clear out your closets so that you open the doors to see neat shelves instead of an overflowing jumble.

For months, I’ve been thinking about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right. Now, with my new formula, I’m on the lookout for ways to incorporate more growth into my life: learning new skills, working on satisfying projects on which I can make progress, celebrating milestones, fostering the growth of others.

Today is the Little Girl’s second birthday, and on the way to school, the Big Girl and I reminisced about everything that happened on February 12, 2005. Talk about an atmosphere of growth—there’s nothing like having a baby and watching that baby change over the course of two years.

I was very excited to find the blog Mutual Improvement, by the creators of 43 Things, which seemed to have an uncanny overlap with the kind of things that I’m interested in. But unless I’m doing something wrong (entirely possible), it seems as though the blog hasn’t been updated in a couple of months…hmmm. But the archives are still new to me, so plenty to explore.

And as a sidenote, I see that according to a Mutual Improvement post, 43 Things reports that the #2 (!!!) goal listed by people was “Drink more water.” From what I read, the current research holds that you don’t really need to drink water all the time. The eight-glasses-a-day thing is a myth. So time to move on to goal #3…

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

39 thoughts on “A refinement of my earth-shattering happiness formula.”

  1. Edward Deci has previously written that the three key intrinsic motivations that help us be happy are good relationships with those we care about, being connected to a larger community, and a sense of personal growth.
    These motivations help people be happier, as opposed to the extrinsic motivations (wealth, fame, good looks), which, as it turn out, don’t make one happy even if one achieves them.

  2. I believe the concept of growth relating to happiness is rooted in how we can’t live without hope. Growth keeps hope alive,and hope is where a desire to grow comes from.

  3. Admiral attempt to overcome your own limitations. Just be happy realising you can’t control it all and that we’re meaning creating beings. namaste

  4. Yipes! 43 THINGS is corrected now, thanks!
    I just briefly checked out the blog Zen Habits–can’t wait to get back there this afternoon when I have time to poke around, looks fantastic.
    Thanks for the recastings of the formula. I’m going to keep tinkering, this is a huge boost to get me started.

  5. i wonder why they stopped at having 43 things as opposed to 45!?! dyu know? why they settled for less than more?!? matter of happiness? ;)

  6. I definately agree on the word growth being central in the pursuit of hapiness! I might even say that growth = hapiness..
    You more then once mentioned that working on hapiness does not always make you happy (the feeling right part), this is the part where you do grow.

  7. I think this idea of growth goes back to the poll you mentioned a while ago about people’s awareness of happiness.
    I’d argue that most people who say that they are happy are merely comfortable, the big difference being that comfortable people aren’t interested in growth, so therefore are not ACTIVELY happy.

  8. hi there. Here are some ideas I have come to realise about happiness…
    What if you discovered that happiness is both a state (of being and mind), as well as a choice?
    Believe it or not, we can choose to be happy.
    The Dalai Lama talks of it in his wonderful book, The Art of Happiness.
    Remember: there is always going to be times when it is not possible or authentic to be happy.
    So, how can one choose to be happy? Here are a few ideas to consider…
    1. Be grateful for what you have (write a list in your gratitude diary)
    2. Realise that this too will pass
    3. Gain perspective on the bigger picture – why get caught up in something transient when you will be here, in this spirit form, for milenia either past, present or future? This moment is really a drop in the ocean
    4. You have been given life, which is a great blessing. As long as you are breathing, you have a choice. Not about what happens to you so much as how you react to it and what you do with your current circumstances
    5. Don’t put yourself under pressure to be something or someone you are not
    6. Pray for peace and see how little time it takes for that warmth to wash over you. Archangel Michael is a good one for happiness
    7. Recognise that what others do or so to you does not have to effect how you feel. It may do, it can do and it often does, but it doesn’t have to
    8. Listen to a beautiful piece of music, sing a song you enjoy, paint or draw, write a poem, go outside for a walk, wonder at a piece of art, look at old photos you enjoy, make some hearty soup, take a long bath, watch an inspiring film, read an inspiring book… self nurture provides a playground for happiness to blossom.
    So, to your happiness and those of all beings.
    Love Beth xx

  9. Thanks for a cool blog Gretchen.
    More than “growth”, I think “flow” is important. Flow is what brings happiness.
    That is why – musicians won’t mind – and will actually enjoy – playing the same song again and again for different audiences.
    (Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has done some research on flow and happiness and has also written a book on it that you might be interested in.)

  10. Please, read your Bible (Old Testament or New Testament or Both) if you want to be truly happy. “Love God with all your heart” is going to make you happy in times of trouble, sickness and of course health.
    It’s sad to me that your last commandment is There is only love when it should really be the first (if one has to have other commandments besides God’s). You haven’t found the means to make you truly happy and that is God.

  11. Hi kids!
    I’ve discovered that happiness is a state of mind that can be created with practice. There is scientific evidence to prove this fact.
    They took a Buddhist Monk and placed him inside a brain scan machine where they proceeded to measure his brain waves, and his ability to control his feelings, especially his feelings of happiness. Sure enough, the Monk proved he could control his feelings by utilizing his prodigious and well trained will power. In other words, learn to make yourself happy by concentrating on happy thoughts. The book Pollyanna was a great example of that concept.
    I’m not a Pollyanna personality but I do whistle old 1950’s songs all day long unless sombody stops me. Grin!
    Signed: Joseph Raglione
    Executive director, the world humanitarian peace and ecology movement.

  12. I can’t help feeling that these ideas focus too much on the ego, the self, me, my future , my insights, my feelings.
    Zen tends to focus instead on exposing the idea of an ongoing ego self which needs to be happy and self-satisfied as an illusion, – an illusion which is the source of all suffering.
    Zen masters – would you agree?

  13. Being happy is just a state of mind – allbeit a very hard one to find and get used to. We are conditioned and trained at an early age to be negative. This is a great post on how to try and reverse that. Nice work, thanks.

  14. Growth is one of the problems if linked to industrial ecconomics but steps towards the truth about the meaning of life for individuals. If I am? Yes, I am happy, since I have found the woman of my life and I am very comfortable with this. Still I am growing – with her by my side – and I am getting closer to the Answer.

  15. A fine post Gretchen. I recall one senior manager who used to visit offices around the country saying that you should always have a reason for going somewhere, not just showing your face.

    I’ve also considered your First Splendid Truth. As an older person with many of life’s milestones whipping past I’ve reworded the First Splendid Truth:

    The First Splendid Truth of Aging holds that to be happier, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, feeling right, and flourishing.

    There’s a whole new book idea there…

  16. Please, read your Bible (Old Testament or New Testament or Both) if you
    want to be truly happy. “Love God with all your heart” is going to make
    you happy in times of trouble, sickness and of course health.
    sad to me that your last commandment is There is only love when it
    should really be the first (if one has to have other commandments
    besides God’s). You haven’t found the means to make you truly happy and
    that is God.
    mass xxl sklep

  17. Happiness does not lie in having it all for myself. Its all about doing the right thing, knowing what won’t work out n looking out for betterment

  18. Happiness is a state of mind. Nothing gives happiness. You decide to be happy or sad. Everyone is different any the definition of what makes us happy will change based on our motivation. The one thing I have learned is that I am happier when I focus on others than on myself. I agree that I enjoy learning and being part of something and contribute to that effort makes me happy.

    I enjoyed your article.

  19. Thank you for posting the 8×8 myth! I’ve been sucking down water constantly, keeping track religiously, and now I can just stop—fabulous! Probably no damage done anyway. I love your book, by the way, and am just thinking about putting together my own happiness project.

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