Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Arthur Brooks launches a happiness column.

It seems a bit strange to launch a column on happiness during a pandemic, but the social isolation that has been forced on us provides us with more time to consider our lives and what really has meaning for us. Arthur Brooks, who teaches a class at the Harvard Business School on happiness, has now offered what is the first in a series of articles in The Atlantic on identifying the building blocks of subjective well-being. (The term well-being is preferred to happiness, because happiness is used to denote everything from a passing good mood to a deeper sense of meaning in life.) I recommend that you read Brooks' article, and pass on here edited chunks of text with three succinct equations he offers for well-being, equations having some variables you can have some influence over, and others that you can not easily change.  

Equation 1: Subjective Well-being = Genes + Circumstances + Habits
Studies of identical twins raised apart suggest that the genetic component of a person’s well-being is between 44 percent and 52 percent, that is, about half. Circumstances—the good and the bad that enter all of our lives—could make up as little as 10 percent or as much as 40 percent of your subjective well-being. Even if circumstances play a big role, however, most scholars think it doesn’t matter very much, because the effects of circumstance never last very long. Genes and circumstances aren’t a productive focus in your quest for happiness. But don’t worry, there’s one variable left that affects long-term well-being and is under our control: habits. To understand habits, we need Equation 2.
Equation 2: Habits = Faith + Family + Friends + Work
Enduring happiness comes from human relationships, productive work, and the transcendental elements of life...many different faiths and secular life philosophies can provide this happiness edge. The key is to find a structure through which you can ponder life’s deeper questions and transcend a focus on your narrow self-interests to serve others...Similarly, there is no magic formula for what shape your family and friendships should take.People who have loving relationships with family and friends thrive; those who don’t, don’t...One of the most robust findings in the happiness literature is the centrality of productive human endeavor in creating a sense of purpose in life...What makes work meaningful is not the kind of work it is, but the sense it gives you that you are earning your success and serving others.
Equation 3: Satisfaction = What you have ÷ What you want
The secret to satisfaction is to focus on the denominator of Equation 3. Don’t obsess about your haves; manage your wants, instead. Don’t count your possessions (or your money, power, prestige, romantic partners, or fame) and try to figure out how to increase them; make an inventory of your worldly desires and try to decrease them. Make a bucket list—but not of exotic vacations and expensive stuff. Make a list of the attachments in your life you need to discard. Then, make a plan to do just that. The fewer wants there are screaming inside your brain and dividing your attention, the more peace and satisfaction will be left for what you already have.
After offering the above three equations as the first class in the mechanics of building a life, Brooks promises in the coming months to offer further installments on the art and science of happiness.

By the way, since this is a post on the subject of happiness,  I want to also point to a recent Sam Harris podcast on the science of happiness - a conversation with Laurie Santos, who  teaches the most popular course offered at Yale, "The Science of WellBeing," and also hosts the popular podcast The Happiness Lab.

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