Happiness Formula: What Makes You Happy (And What Doesn’t)

the happiness formula

– By Nils Salzgeber

In the 20th century, psychology was primarily focused on pathology, victimology, and mental illness. For every one hundred published articles on mental illness, there was only one published on mental health. This led to a great understanding of negative aspects of human behavior such as depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia.

Unfortunately, it also led to only very little progress on positive aspects of human behavior such as happiness and well-being.

Basically, the psychologists were pretty good at taking someone from -8 to -4 to 0 on a scale of well-being. But they weren’t very skilled at getting someone from 0 to +4 to +8.

Enter: Martin Seligman.

In the year 2000, he and his colleagues decided to start aggressively studying the positive elements of human living such as positive emotion and happiness. They created a new branch of research and called it Positive Psychology.

Two years later, in 2002, Martin Seligman published a book on happiness called Authentic Happiness. The book distills years of research into practical and easy-to-understand guidelines for living a happier life. At the heart of the book lies his formula for happiness — a super simple overview of all the factors that influence our happiness.

In this article, we’ll take a thorough look at the formula and find out what you can do to become happier.

The Happiness Formula

Without further ado, here’s the happiness formula:

H = S + C + V

  • H stands for enduring level of happiness
  • S is your set range
  • C is the circumstances in your life, and
  • V represents factors under your voluntary control.

In the remainder of this article, we’ll discuss each variable in detail.

H: Your Enduring Level of Happiness

It’s important to distinguish between your momentary level of happiness and your enduring level of happiness.

Momentary happiness can easily be increased by little joys such as praise from your boss, chocolate, a fun movie, sex, flowers, or a massage.

Increasing the number of transient bursts of happiness in your life, however, is not the goal here. Instead, the goal is to raise your enduring level of happiness (which won’t be accomplished by merely increasing the number of bursts of momentary positive feelings).

The remaining three variables in the happiness formula will show us what increases or decreases our enduring levels of happiness.

S: Your Set Range

Some discouraging news: About 50 percent of your happiness is completely out of your control because it depends on your genes.

You may be genetically wired to be very happy most of the time. Or you may be genetically wired to be sad most of the time. Or you’re somewhere in the middle.

The point is, your genes make up for 50 percent of your happiness, and that can’t be changed. This means you have a so-called happiness set-point to which you will always gravitate towards in good as well as in bad times.

Getting your book published, going on holidays, meeting your future wife or husband, each of these may raise your happiness level for a while but, in a few weeks or months, it will drift back to your set-point.

This happens because of a process called adaptation. Human beings, it turns out, are adaptation machines. We take good things for granted and overcome daunting obstacles, only to return to our natural happiness set-point.

[Here’s a short history of “Happiness” – The Brand that unexpectedly found its way into mainstream marketing.]

You won the lottery? You’ll be happier for a few months, but then you’ll be back to your set-point.

Got fired from your job? You’ll be a bit less happy for a few weeks or months, but then you’ll be back at your set-point.

Here’s an example from the book:

Even individuals who become paraplegic as a result of spinal cord accidents quickly begin to adapt to their greatly limited capacities, and within eight weeks they report more net positive emoting than negative emotion. Within a few years, they wind up only slightly less happy on average than individuals who are not paralyzed.

The bottom line is, we have a set range of happiness towards which we naturally gravitate. This set range is what’s keeping your level of happiness from increasing.

Thankfully, we can use the other remaining variables, C and V, to raise that level.

C: Circumstances

If you want to lastingly raise your level of happiness by changing the external circumstances of your life, Martin Seligman says the following strategies are proven to work:

  1. Live in a wealthy democracy, not in an impoverished dictatorship (a strong effect)
  2. Get married (a robust effect, but perhaps not causal)
  3. Avoid negative events and negative emotion (only a moderate effect)
  4. Acquire a rich social network (a robust effect, but perhaps not causal)
  5. Get religion (a moderate effect)

And here are the external circumstances that you don’t need to bother about:

  1. Make more money (money has little or no effect once you are comfortable enough to buy this book, and more materialistic people are less happy)
  2. Stay healthy (subjective health, not objective health matters)
  3. Get as much education as possible (no effect)
  4. Change your race or move to a sunnier climate (no effect)

You’ve probably noticed: Changing these circumstances is either impractical, expensive, or downright impossible. And even if you could alter all of the above circumstances, they wouldn’t make much of a difference for you.

Why? Because they account only for between 8 and 15 percent of the variance in happiness.

The good news is that there are a set of internal circumstances that are easier to change and will have a greater impact on your happiness. These internal circumstances are what the last variable, V, is all about.

V: Voluntary Variables

If you want to change your enduring level of happiness, this is where the money is. The Voluntary Variables account for about 40 percent of your happiness and get divided into three buckets:

  1. Positive emotions about the past (e.g. satisfaction, contentment, fulfillment, pride, and serenity)
  2. Positive emotions about the future (e.g. optimism, hope, faith, and trust)
  3. Positive emotions about the present (e.g. joy, ecstasy, calm, test, ebullience, pleasure, and flow)

The more positive emotion you have about past, future, and present, the happier you will be. Therefore, to raise your lasting level of happiness, you have to change how you feel about your past, how you think about the future, and how you experience the present.

We’ll take a closer look at each of those right now.

finding happiness formula

How to Feel Lastingly Happier About Your Past

How you feel about the past can have a big impact on your happiness. You can either experience a lot of negative emotions about the past (as resentment, anger, pity) or a lot of positive emotions (as satisfaction, contentment, fulfillment, pride, serenity).

The more positive your view of the past is, the happier you will be. That may sound a bit oversimplified, but it’s mainly true.

So, how do you improve your happiness about the past? Martin Seligman offers three strategies in the book:

  1. Let go of thinking that your past determines your future. This belief engenders a certain passivity about life that is not going to be any helpful. The remedy is an easy one. Simply realize that you have a fairly big amount of control over life. You can make yourself happier. You can become more successful. And, of course, you can achieve a lot of great things if you put in the work and stay patient.
  2. Be grateful about the good things in your past. Gratitude amplifies the good events that happened to you in the past. To ignite feelings of gratitude about your past, you can try writing a gratitude letter or journal about things/events/people you’re grateful for on a regular basis.
  3. Learn to forgive past wrongs. Forgiveness is all about loosening the power of bad events in the past to embitter you. Holding on to anger, resentment, pity, or any other negative emotion over a past event will lower your levels of happiness, and you know that. Seligman recommends a process called R.E.A.C.H. to practice forgiveness.

Those three strategies will help you feel lastingly happier about the past. Next up, feelings about the future.

How to Feel Lastingly Happier About Your Future

Your feelings about the future — good (optimism, hope, faith, and trust) or bad (fear, anxiety, or dread) — are determined in large by your thoughts and interpretations of the world.

If you think you’re going to completely mess up your presentation next week, then you won’t be very happy. If, on the other hand, you’re looking forward to your vacation in Bali next month, then you’ll be a lot happier.

The #1 strategy Seligman recommends for improving our feelings about the future is to recognize and dispute automatic pessimistic thoughts. It’s all about keeping things in perspective and it’s actually pretty easy to do.

To improve how you feel about future, recognize and dispute your automatic pessimistic thoughts. Click To Tweet

Let’s say you’ve just gotten some bad feedback from your boss. Your natural reaction might be terribly negative: “Oh my God, I must be the worst employee ever. I can’t even get a simple reservation right. Maybe I should just quit. My boss thinks I’m useless anyway. I really can’t seem to do anything right. I’m such a loser, blah blah…”

Instead of letting such negative thoughts make you unhappy, why not dispute them?

Like this, for example: “Okay, so my boss wasn’t happy with my performance. That’s OK. I guess I really could have put in more effort. I was slacking a bit. Let me work a lot harder over the next few weeks to show my boss what Iím capable of. I want to better than what I’ve shown lately. I’m really excited about that. Let’s make it happen!”

That’s a simple example of going from sadness, despair, self-pity to excitement and optimism by disputing automatic negative thoughts. Needless to say, the second interpretation of the event, the one after the disputing, will make you a lot happier.

How to Feel Lastingly Happier in the Present

Alright, improving how you’re feeling about the present is the last step in lastingly raising your enduring level of happiness.

In order to feel lastingly happier in the present, we need to understand the difference between pleasure and gratification.

Pleasures: These are delights that have clear sensory and strong emotional components, what philosophers sometimes call “raw feelings”: exuberance, thrills, ecstasy, orgasm, mirth, delight, and comfort. They are temporary and involve little, if any, thinking.

Examples of pleasures include watching TV, getting a massage, listening to music, eating chocolate, or drinking some wine.

[Do you want to know more about why you shouldn’t always give pleasure a top priority? Read it all here: You Must Ask For Joy, Not Pleasure.]

Gratifications: These activities aren’t necessarily accompanied by any raw feelings at all. Rather, the gratifications engage us fully so that we become immersed and absorbed in them, and lose self-consciousness. Time stops, our skills match the challenge, and we are in touch with our strengths.

In other words, we experience flow. The gratifications last longer than the pleasures, involve quite a lot of thinking, and are undergirded by our virtues and strengths.

Examples of gratifications are playing volleyball, enjoying a great conversation, rock climbing, reading a good book, dancing, or helping the homeless.

The key to living a truly happy life is to increase the amount of gratifications you experience in your own life.

Pleasures are fine and can make you temporarily happy, but they will never bring you lasting and fulfilling happiness. In fact, the average state of someone watching TV is mildly depressed.

Put in a different way, to live a happy life, stop chasing momentary pleasures and start experiencing more flow instead.

So, how do you do it? How do you increase the gratifications in your life?

For one thing, don’t be a couch potato. Go out there and do something, engage in sports, find a hobby. Ask yourself, when does time stop for you? When do you find yourself doing exactly what you want to be doing, and never wanting it to come to an end?

Most importantly, figure out what your signature character strengths are and use them as often as possible. Positive Psychology has categorized a set of 24 character strengths, and we each have aspects of these strengths in our personality. The science is showing us that, the more we use our top strengths, the more happiness and well-being we’ll experience.

You see, using our character strengths regularly helps us experience gratification. Martin Seligman puts it this way:

The good life is using your signature strengths every day to produce authentic happiness and abundant gratification.

Find out what your signature strengths are by taking the official test here. And then find ways to use those strengths as often as possible in the main realms of your life to experience abundant gratification and authentic happiness.

Final Words

Let’s go over a quick recap of what we learnt today.

We’ve looked at the happiness formula: H = S + C + V

It states that your enduring level of happiness (H) equals your set range (S) + the circumstances in your life (C) + factors under your voluntary control (V).

Your set range (S) makes up about 50% of your happiness. It is genetically determined. This means you always gravitate towards your natural range of happiness. Unless you use the other remaining variables, C and V, your happiness wonít change much over the course of your lifetime.

Your external circumstances (C) make up only about 10% of your happiness. Proven strategies to optimize your circumstances for happiness include living in a wealthy democracy, getting married, avoiding negative events and emotions, acquiring a rich social network, and becoming religious. Maximizing these circumstances is usually expensive, hard, and not very practical.

The money lies in improving factors under your voluntary control (V), which make up about 40% of your overall happiness. These factors fall into divisions of positive emotions about the past, the future, and the present.

[By the way, can money make you any happier? What does the research science say about it? Find the answer here: Can Your Money Buy Happiness: The Truth]

To feel lastingly happier about the past, let go of thinking that your past determines your future, be grateful about the good things in your life, and practice forgiveness about past wrongs. Feeling lastingly happier about the future is accomplished by disputing automatic negative thoughts.

And feeling lastingly happier in the present is all about experiencing as much gratification as possible by engaging in sports, pursuing hobbies, and using your signature strengths as often as possible.

And there you have it. That is the science of happiness in a nutshell.

If you want to discover proven ways to lastingly raise your level of happiness, be sure to check out my complete guide on happiness: How to Be Happy: 26 Strategies Backed by Research.

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Author Bio: This is a guest post by Nils Salzgeber. He is a lifestyle coach and co-founder of NJlifehacks, a blog dedicated to helping people live a better life through relentless self-improvement. Nils is on his journey to becoming the greatest version of himself and loves sharing what he learns along the way. You can follow him on Twitter.

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