A secret formula for happiness

The first assignment I had in college was a philosophy paper.

What is the best way to live?

How can you possibly answer a question like that? I wrote about finding a balance between being happy and helping others. Do things that make you feel good! Help a person in need! It was a fine thought, but in truth there is no best way to live. It was a terrible paper.

But in my old age, I’ve learned something. There is a secret formula for happiness.

Happiness is reality minus expectations.

H = (R – E)

I’m not the first to say this, but the formula explains a lot. Like, why surprises are great. You weren’t expecting anything, and then you got something. With an E of zero, the H and R meet as one and life is wonderful.

It explains why some of my favorite experiences – concerts, movies, travels, whatever- have been those that exceeded my expectations. For example, I expected Star Wars to be amazing. It was amazing. R and E were the same. I did not expect 50/50 to be a good movie. It was a great movie. R was higher than E. It was a happier experience.

But here’s my main point — I’m not sure that my generation, millennials or Gen Y or whatever the hell you want to call us, is very happy. This is not true for everyone, of course, but it is true for a lot of people.

I think the reason we’re not happy is not that our lives are worse than our parents. Or that we’ve inherited a terrible world. Yes, we have more student loans, we have more wealth inequality, we’re living in the afterglow of the worst financial crisis in eighty years. We also have: less crime. Social progress. Better access to healthcare. Lower unemployment. The internet. I would argue the reality (R) is HIGHER than ever before.

I think the heart of our shared unhappiness lies in the last part of the formula. Expectations. That’s higher too. It’s accelerated at a higher rate than Reality. And thus we are unhappy.

There are a number of reasons for this – the media, technology, unrealistic expectations set upon us, demographics – but let’s talk about social media for a second. When I go on Facebook, or Instagram, I feel terrible about my life. I see people getting married. I see people on vacation. I see amazing pictures from amazing people, doing amazing things, with these amazing filters that capture the light so amazingly. And I’m sitting in my pajamas, scrolling through my phone, eating a bowl of cereal, while a stream of milk leaks out the side of my mouth and onto my shirt. I feel inadequate.

I have to constantly remind myself that people present an inflated version of themselves on social media. I do it too! We all want validation. In order to get that, we need to make it seem like everything is going great. JUST GREAT. In reality, everybody has problems, everybody poops, everybody is always going through something.

I like social media. I would never delete my Facebook or Twitter accounts. Yes, social media can breed a profound sense of inadequacy. It raises the E to unreachable heights, which makes it impossible to have a positive H. And that’s why I force myself to remember that behind that awesome picture in that awesome place is a person who probably has the same worries I do.

Or maybe they really do have an awesome life, always. And if that’s the case, I feel bad for them. Did you not watch Inside Out? There is beauty in sadness.

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