Could there be a simple formula for happiness? It sounds like a political holy grail: a potential panacea for all our spiritual ills. But is this attractive prospect a real possibility?
Mo Gawdat, Google’s chief business officer, has been doing the media rounds in the last weeks to promote his new book, Solve for Happy, which claims to have developed just such a simple algorithm for happiness. He believes this algorithm let him continue to live a full and happy life in the face of the tragic loss of his son.
The formula? “Happiness is equal to or greater than the events of your life, minus your expectations of how life should be.” In other words, happiness requires that we expect no more out of life than it gives us: be happy with the half full (or empty) glass.
There are echoes of the ancient Stoics in Gawdat’s proposal. Their celebrated stoicism rested in part on their belief that all of our actions and the events in our lives were not only fated but also ultimately for the best: “the dog tied to the cart must follow – willingly or not”. Accepting the misfortunes that befall us as part of the grand overall scheme helps us find contentment in life that we have.
Indeed, developing emotional and mental resilience, and finding contentment in what is available to us in the present, is one key ingredient of a prosperous and happy life. We cannot be happy in the broad sense without ways to cope with the losses and misfortunes that, as human beings, we all inevitably face in life.
However, Gawdat’s happiness algorithm could, at best, only ever be a partial solution to the problem of how we achieve genuine prosperity, because it focuses on one aspect of it: the subjective mental and emotional state of “feeling happy”. Like some medications, it treats the symptoms of discontent without addressing the underlying causes; it could even lead us to mistakenly believe that we are doing well, when, in fact, we are not.
Taken too far, could it become a dangerous tool for the unscrupulous to manipulate us into passively accepting exploitation? On the promise of this shallow version of happiness people could feel it is better to “accept their lot” and give up the attempt to improve the conditions for wellbeing. How much easier it would be for those politicians sacrificing our national services in the name of austerity if, rather than resisting them, we changed our expectations to match ‘the new reality’!
At Happy City we believe that genuine happiness takes effort, both individually and as a community and society at large: it comes from exercising the power we have to benefit ourselves and those around us. If we are not doing this – if we just opt for the feeling of happiness by sitting back and accepting our lives and the world as they are – we’re just buying snake oil.
Imogen Smith – Happy City Contributor