The Happiness Equation: Is It Easy to Be Happy?

The Happiness Equation by Neil Pasricha is a hugely readable, enjoyable and informative book on one of humanity’s biggest conundrums: “How can I be happy?”

At the end of the day, all people want in life is to be happy, and this is by far the best book on happiness that I have come across. It is written in nine different chapters filled with short sub-sections, and an easy-to-remember one-liner to finish off each section.

Here’s my summary:

Be Happy First

A lot of people get caught up on thinking, “If I achieve/do/have this, I will be happy”, and don’t realize that happiness is a mindset. Pasricha describes that the composition of happiness is 10% circumstances and 90% everything else. There are no guarantees that the end-goal will make you happy, and even if it does bring joy at the end, you’ll be spending the whole journey stressed and unhappy. If we were to imagine the happiest people we know, it’s not always the wealthiest, most successful people. So if we can switch our mindset to happiness as a default, not only will our lives be more enjoyable, we could even reach our goals faster too.

“Happy people don’t have the best of everything, they make the best of everything.”

Do it For You

One of the greatest inhibitors of happiness is a lack of self-confidence. Pasricha splits a graph into four quadrants, with “Opinion of self” and “Opinion of others” on each axis. Self-confidence is when both opinions are high. We see ourselves and other people as competent, moral, of good character. If someone has a low opinion of others and a high opinion of himself, he is considered arrogant. On the other hand, if he has a high opinion of others and a low opinion of himself, he is considered insecure. Finally, if he has a low opinion of both himself and others, he is classified as cynical.

Probably the most pervasive of the four conditions is the one of insecurity. One of the biggest reasons we may feel insecure is when we act as people-pleasers, or when we are searching for external validation. When we inevitably fail to please someone or our hard work ends up falling on deaf ears, it can be miserable.

So how can we make ourselves immune to criticism or lack of recognition? Do it for you. If the primary motivation for doing something is just because you want to, it’s known as internal validation. This means that it no longer matters what the outside world thinks or says, because you’re just doing what you want to do, and you like yourself for it.

Remember the Lottery

This is another way of describing how lucky you are to even be alive. What are the chances that the universe created life on Earth, and created you? The fact that only one in 15 of every person who has ever lived is still alive, and you being one of them, is a blessing. So no matter how bad it gets, you’re still lucky enough to be breathing. Not every person has the privilege of doing that.

Never Retire

Pasricha starts off the chapter with the story of a teacher at his college that reluctantly retired and within a few days fell ill and died. He attributed the death to the lack of purpose that set in for him soon after retirement.

He goes on to highlight that on the Japanese island of Okinawa nobody retires, and almost everyone lives to over the age of 100. They all have an ikigai, a reason for waking up in the morning that gives them joy or meaning in life.

It turns out that retirement is an entirely invented concept, relatively new to the world. The concept was put into action in Germany less than 150 years ago, and it could be argued that it doesn’t work.

Work brings more benefits than just a monthly paycheck. Most work is social – a place to make friends, connect with people and work in a team. It also adds structure and routine that is so important in living healthily. The stimulation that work entails is a good physical and/or mental exercise. Finally, work can sometimes add extra purpose and meaning to life if the role especially helps other people, or works towards a better world.

Overvalue You

Pasricha invites us to calculate how much we make per hour. Most people get paid on a salary, and they can stray away from the usual 40-hour workweek. Interestingly, traditionally high-paying jobs like lawyers end up getting paid a very similar hourly wage to lower-paid jobs simply because they work way more hours. I’m not entirely convinced about the point Pasricha makes, but there could be some level of truth to it.

The main point of the chapter is to stand back and ask whether you are spending your time in the way that you want to, and whether your hourly wage justifies the job you’re doing.

Create Space

Pasricha points out that we all need space in our lives devoid of thinking and doing, otherwise we can suffer from burnout, or stress-related illnesses. But how do we create that blank space in our calendars?

Pasricha argues that multi-tasking is impossible and that people are better off separating tasks and doing them one by one, with minimal distractions. He also brings up the idea of making shorter deadlines. People almost always leave projects until the last minute, so why don’t we squeeze out the time usually reserved for procrastination by bringing forward the deadline?

The amount of decisions we need to make on a daily basis can also affect how effective we are. By reducing the number of small decisions we need to make, we can free up our brainpower for larger, more important decisions. President Obama only had suits in two different colors, while ex-Navy SEAL Jocko Willink writes down what he’s going to do that day the evening before.

Just Do It

So much of our lives are spent thinking instead of doing. It can lead to the very real condition of ‘paralysis by analysis’.

Pasricha describes the relationship of being able to do something (can do), having motivation to do it (want to do), and doing it (do). Instead of viewing it as a linear relationship i.e. “I have to be able to do it, and want to do it, before I do it”, we can imagine it as a circular relationship that feeds back into itself. Therefore, we can start at any of the three conditions to get the momentum going. However, the one that is under our control the most is “Do”. By forcing yourself to do something even if you don’t want to or don’t think you’re able to, it actually makes the other two more likely to come true. This can be related to cold showers, training for a competition, or going to the gym.

Be You

“There’s nothing more satisfying than being loved for who you are and nothing more painful than being loved for who you’re not but pretending to be.”

Happiness can’t be achieved without authenticity. It’s so easy in the modern world to wear a mask, and be what people want you to be. But as Gandhi once said, “Happiness is when what you think, say and do are in harmony.” This may sound extremely difficult, but it’s actually quite simple if you forget about what other people will think of it.

One of the most impactful parts of The Happiness Equation is when Pasricha shares the The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, a book by Bronnie Ware, a palliative nurse from Australia. Here they are:

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.

I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Hopefully we can learn from the dying by not making the same mistakes. In a nutshell, authenticity removes regret.

Don’t Take Advice

Customer: What’s the best dish on the menu?”

Waiter: The fettuccine alfredo.

Customer: I’ll go for the pizza please.

Why do we do this? We already know what we want, but we still ask for advice. Sometimes we take the advice instead of doing what we want, and we regret it. There is so much conflicting advice everywhere we look. What’s the healthiest diet? Should I buy an old car or a new one? Do I need to take supplements?

Pasricha highlights that there are conflicting clich├ęs that we accept as true. Good things come to those who wait. But the early bird gets the worm. He who hesitates is lost. But look before you leap. There are countless other examples.

In the end, a combination of our heart and common sense will probably tell us what to do.

What was the biggest takeaway from this summary of The Happiness Equation? Let me know in the comments below!

Ed Cooke: Sometimes All You Need to Do is Sit on the Loo and Zoom Out

Ed Cooke is a certified Grandmaster of Memory that was featured on Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routine and Habits of Billionaires, Icons and World-Class Performers. The following excerpt has come in handy on several occasions since I first came across this.

It goes:

“When I was at school, I would lose a debating competition or discover that I was a loser in a more general sense. I had what I call, in a way, a ‘mind hack’. I’d be sitting on the loo or something and I’d just think, ‘Oh, everything feels terrible and awful. It’s all gone to shit.’ Then I’d consider, ‘But if you think about it, the stars are really far away,’ then you try to imagine the world from the stars. Then you sort of zoom in and you’re like, ‘Oh, there’s this tiny little character there for a fragment of time worrying about X.'”

We all experience problems. Sometimes though, we can focus on how it’s so terrible that the problem completely balloons out of proportion in the grand scale of life and the universe.

The above quote from Ed Cooke is a very simple, but powerful visualization. I tend to prefer imagining my body from a bird’s-eye view and zooming out slowly, like Google Maps would. I can then include other people in my mind’s eye as I zoom out further – neighbors, people driving their cars, farmers ploughing fields, office workers etc.

Through this visualization, we can understand how many other people occupy this world, and that they have problems too! So why aren’t we hung up on those people’s problems to the same degree, even though some (or most) of them are worse than ours? It’s the inflated sense of self-importance while simultaneously forgetting the interconnectedness of the world. Sometimes a brilliant way to solve our own problem is to solve somebody else’s.

A lot of our individual problems can come from self-consciousness. But sometimes we forget that it’s not only us that suffers from this, the whole world does to at least some degree. A simple example from my own life would be as a door-to-door salesman it used to be incredibly nerve-wracking to knock on someone’s door and speak to them. But once I recognized that the person who answered the door was probably just as nervous or scared of silly old me at the same time, it was much easier to relax. Sometimes we view every other person as formidable, competent, and confident, everyone except ourselves. But it’s important to remember – we all feel the same things, and we are all human.

The Four Agreements: Be Impeccable With Your Word

The Four Agreements is a book of wisdom from a modern-day Toltec named Don Miguel Ruiz. Toltecs are an ancient tribe from Southern Mexico known for their knowledge and wisdom. Ruiz summarizes the Toltec philosophy through four agreements.

Ruiz says the first agreement – Be impeccable with your word – is the most important and most difficult one to honor.

Language is one of the most powerful tools that determines the course of our lives. Words have the power to create love and share joy, or spread hate and lie about others. Without using our word impeccably it would be extremely difficult to live a life of fulfilment.

An example of the extent that word can be used for evil is the rise of Nazism and the suffering caused by the word of just one man.

A seed is sown when someone first tells a child that they are ugly, stupid, or useless. From that point on, the child looks for evidence to defend this newly formed agreement. If they get something wrong in class it reinforces the belief that they’re stupid. If they anger their parent it reinforces the belief that they are useless.

Luckily these spells can be broken by evidence to the contrary, although it is arguably more difficult to break the spell than reinforce it. That’s why we live in a world where self-confidence, self-esteem and self-love are becoming harder and harder to preserve. The language that’s being used in our environment is the problem.

Gossip is something that occurs so often in normal life. We always want to talk about other people. But gossip is harmful, even if the person we are gossiping about never finds out. It spreads a negative energy and plants new negative beliefs in others. One way that I catch myself gossiping is by asking myself if I would say the same thing about the person I am talking about if they were present in the conversation too.

Even though it wasn’t mentioned in the book I also took this rule to mean: “Do what you say you’re going to do.” I believe that the more extensively a person can turn their words into action, the more fulfilled their life will end up being. Doing what you say on a consistent basis will build trust in yourself, and others will trust you too because you can be relied upon. The discipline and strength required will create the self-confidence, self-esteem and self-love that is a prerequisite for a good life.

Be impeccable with your word.

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life Rule 2: Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible for Helping

On the face of it, this rule makes a lot of sense. But why does this need to be said in the first place? Shouldn’t we already be doing this as a result of human nature, and the nature of life itself? How could we have become the dominant species on Earth without treating ourselves like people we are responsible for helping? But there are plenty of examples of where we may not treat ourselves in this manner.

When I read in the chapter that humans are better at administering prescription medication to their pets than they are to themselves, I was unsurprised. Humans really love their pets, more than they love themselves. But why?

We live in a reality and a society where human beings self-harm, commit suicide, fill themselves up with drugs and alcohol, and engage in criminal activity. We all know it’s not for the betterment of ourselves, so why do we do it? Why do we deliberately act in a way to sabotage ourselves? Why is it that we say we are going to do something that would be good for ourselves but we don’t end up doing it?

One major difference between human beings and other animals is that we possess self-consciousness. Peterson goes on to describe the story of the Garden of Eden in the Bible, where an evil serpent cons Eve into eating an apple from a tree in which God forbade. When the “original sin” was committed, Adam and Eve became suddenly self-conscious for the first time- they realized they were naked! They ran away and hid and Adam didn’t come as he usually did that evening on his daily walk with God.

Animals who are not self-conscious just act by their nature, which is to survive, reproduce and so on. Because humans are self-conscious, we question what the meaning of life is, we second-guess ourselves and we are far from perfect. To say that someone “is human” means to say someone being capable of making mistakes.

Because humans are self-conscious, we become only so aware of the darkness of the ourselves, of things that we have thought, said and done in the past. It is in this way that humans lose respect for their individual selves and therefore cannot commit to care for themselves in the same way that they would care for their innocent pet. We know that we are not innocent, so we don’t believe we deserve our own love and care.

But humans have also done good. The self-consciousness that leads to self-loathing can also lead to self-love if we notice the times we have helped others, or acted altruistically. If we started to respect ourselves, we could then behave with virtue and then take care of ourselves properly. We would be able to walk with God once again, instead of hiding in the bushes when he calls out our name.

Peterson has worded this rule very carefully. To treat ourselves like someone we are responsible for helping is to consider what is best for us. The best for us isn’t always what we want in the moment (chicken wings). It’s also not the same as what would make us happy (chicken wings).

One might argue that we would rather focus on helping other people than helping ourselves. But if we aren’t allowing ourselves to be in the right mental or physical condition, then how difficult would it be to take care of others before we eventually derailed? There’s a reason why airlines tell us to put our own breathing apparatus on before helping others in a sudden loss of cabin pressure.

Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.