We, as people, spend a lot of time talking about happiness. How to get it, how to keep it, when it’s missing, who has the most, etc. Actually, what I wind up hearing more than talk about happiness is talk about everything everyone thinks will make us happy, talk that really winds up being one logical step away from a more useful kind of discourse. Possessions, experiences, connections, impact. We’re constantly bombarded by everyone else’s idea of how to be happy. “If you do X, you will be happy. If you do Y, you will not be happy.” What if we step back a little bit?
I’m going to take the easy route for now and just define “happiness” as what we all want in life. It is the reason we exist. This almost self-referential definition is also what a mathematician might call non-constructive, since it really only tells you how to recognize it (at best) and gives no guidance about how to create or find it. Defining our purpose in life as maximizing happiness sounds selfish at first, but only until you realize that for most people who aren’t sociopaths, the happiness of others does indeed play a huge role in our own individual happiness. Our individual happiness is the weighted sum of a whole bunch of terms, many of which are dependent on the happiness other people (or entities, such as “the world” or “my university” or “my company”). So how do we maximize happiness then?
Here is my three step plan for maximizing happiness.
Step one toward achieving happiness is figuring out what makes you happy. Figure out what terms enter into your happiness equation, and figure out how much each one matters to you. I’ve learned about myself that, for now, I value things like experiences (good food, good conversation, dancing) and impact (my happiness equation includes a heavily weighted term for the happiness of everyone).
Step two is just making a plan to make yourself happy, based on your happiness equation. One of the things that inspired me to work so hard in school was so that I could have a chance to work at a company like Google, where making a positive difference in the world is baked into the organization’s mission. I’m lucky enough to go to work every day knowing that what I do will positively impact millions of lives (even if just a little bit), and while luck and privilege are undoubtedly parts of why I managed to achieve my goal, I had to understand what my goal was in the first place in order to work toward it.
Step three is go back to step 1 and repeat constantly. Beyond just taking the time to figure this all out, it’s equally important to realize that your happiness equation will change over time, and as a result your plans should change over time to adapt. Make it a daily habit. If what you’re doing with your life drifts out of alignment with your happiness equation, it’s important to recognize it early and address it. As a people, we tend to constantly underestimate how much we will change in the future, and as a result we don’t make it a habit to constantly reevaluate what’s making us happy and what isn’t.
Some of you might recognize the above algorithm as a naive gradient ascent optimization. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to find more effective approaches.
Happiness should be simple, not necessarily easy, but I think this is a good place to start.