The Happiness Equation in 15 Minutes or Less
Updated: Apr 9
What's the point of The Happiness Equation?
Neil Pasricha wrote with his newborn son in mind, setting out to answer the question: What does it take to live a happy life?
Based on Neil's experience and personal research, he wrote this book to define practical things one can do to help increase their happiness. The original book has 9 not so mysterious 'secrets' that he shares but a lot of them are similar to each other, so I've wrapped up 7 key takeaways in this post.
If I could go back in time, would I pick this book up?
Yes, but I wouldn't call this book a must-read. While Neil does cite some evidence to support his claims, a lot of the content here feels more anecdotal and relates to his personal experiences and findings, which is OK.
Having said that, I did find it pretty light and enjoyable. I listened to this book via Audible for leisure, which I think is a good way to consume these types of books- listen or read for enjoyment, try out ideas that seem interesting, and throw out the rest.
Now, into the seitan!
Key Takeaway #1 - Human beings are not designed to be happy
For the vast majority of our existence as a species, life was dangerous and short. We were constantly in the mindset of: “I need food and safety. If I don’t, I’ll die.” so it was normal to not be content with our lives...
But now, most of us living in affluent nations have everything, at least in comparison to our ancestors - food, shelter, and basic safety from potential predators. Our biology, however, hasn't quite caught up yet.
As a result, we are designed to be paranoid, to resort to anxiety more than ease - according to Neil, we resort to the framework of: Look for Problem => Find Problem => Fix Problem => Repeat. But there's always another problem - always another reason we can find as to why things aren't good enough.
Instead of having a hedonistic thought pattern of: Work hard => get the thing you think you need to be happy (e.g. material possession, status) => be happy for two minutes => repeat the cycle, why not follow the framework of: BE HAPPY FIRST => do good things because you're happy (e.g. being altruistic, doing well at work/study because you're engaged) => then, appreciate the rewards (which are nice, but not things that we depend on for our well being).
Key Takeaway # 2 Happiness = 10% life events, 50% genetic predisposition, and 40% intentional activities... maybe
In the book, Neil cites the paper "Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change" which concludes the above statement. I believe Neil misrepresents this study in his book by emphasising the fact that "Only 10% of our happiness is based on life events", leaving out the 50% for genetic predisposition - a factor obviously outside of our control.
But at the very least, there's argument to be made that at least a portion of our happiness is dependant on intentional activity.
According to Neil, there are 7 intentional activities we can implement into our lives to boost our levels of happiness:
1. Three walks: A 30 minute walk, even just three times per week, supports a positive mood.
Neil was quoting this study, which found that elderly patients experiencing MDD who went for a 30 minute walk, three times a week experienced similar or better results in treatment than the control groups who were prescribed SSRIs. => the sample size of this study is not the largest or the most diverse, but it's quite interesting nonetheless. And it's needless to say that activity has a positive influence on our mood.
2. The 20-minute replay: Writing about a positive experience for 20 minutes helps us relive those experiences, focus on the enjoyable aspects of our life, and appreciate our relationships more.
3. Random acts of kindness
A researcher named Sonja Lyubomirsky asked students to perform 5 acts of kindness a week, and measured their results, finding that performing even small acts of kindness for others such as donating blood, helping a friend, and writing thank you notes made people feel good.
4. The complete unplug: Being able to recharge after your day of work/study and have quality downtime gives our mind much needed time to rest. Examples of this can include:
Choosing not to use the internet on vacations.
Turning off the phone during social time.
Choosing to only be connected during certain times of the day (e.g. putting away tech after dinner each night).
This is something that I'd like to work on personally, similar to others, I have noticed an urge to be in a state of 'always on'.
Always checking emails and social media, filling a lot of my time with consuming content and interacting with the internet... barely a moment in which I am not 'connected', which obviously is not what comes to mind when we think of promoting positive wellbeing.
It's nice to go for a walk outside and just take in the world, or sit quietly and be able to hear the self think, you know?
5. Hit 'flow': Finding engaging activities that we enjoy, require us to demonstrate our skills, and challenge us:
Flow is that feeling that we have when we get really engaged in something and time flies by.
I believe it'd be a bit more challenging to figure out what sort of activities these would be for me personally, though it's exciting to ponder.
6. 2 minute mediations: Mindfulness meditation can increase our compassion & self-awareness while decreasing our sense of stress.
7. Weekly gratitudes
Neil suggests that readers write down or reflect on 5 things that we are grateful for each week, but I know of some people who do this on a daily basis or more sporadically.
"Happy people don’t have the best of everything, they make the best of everything."
Neil references The Nun study: a bunch of nun journals were studied by researchers, who found a relationship among nuns who wrote with more positive language. These nuns lived longer and healthier lives.
Key Takeaway #3 - Do it for YOU
This section in summary: We care way too much about what everyone thinks, and the shifting perception of others is a dumb basis for our own self-esteem and motivation. Do what you like.
There are renowned artists who were not appreciated in their time, does that mean that their work was worthless, or their lives meaningless?
Neil infers that one should be careful with external goals that focus on comparison to others, as they encourage hedonism- unless you are literally the BEST in the ENTIRE WORLD, there is ALWAYS going to be someone more successful than you. Obsessive comparison to others is a losing game.
Intrinsic motivation > Extrinsic motivation - Neil tells a story here to support this sentiment - to paraphrase:
A bunch of kids go past an old man's house after school each day and throw rocks at his windows for fun. One evening, the old man says to the kids: "Please, come back tomorrow and throw rocks at my windows! I'll pay you all 5 bucks!"
Excited by this proposition, the kids come back and throw rocks at the old man's windows the next day and the day after that, walking home with cash in their hands.
Then the old man lowers his offer: "Please come back tomorrow. I'm a bit short on cash though, so can only pay you 50c each." The kids refuse to come back, as they decide that it's not worth it.
This is one of the moments in the book where I believe Neil's anecdotal grounds are a bit shaky and oversimplify his point. On one hand, I partially agree with what he's trying to say here- it's hard to compete with somebody who's having fun.
On the other hand, I don't think that it's as simple as: "If you introduce extrinsic motivation to an activity you already find enjoyable, all of that intrinsic motivation is sucked out of the activity."
I think that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are not completely independent of each other in the way that Neil seems to suggest but in constant relation to each other. For example, pursuing extrinsic factors such as status, money, and possessions are often a means of fulfilling intrinsic needs/desires such as the need to feel secure and accepted, aligning our actions with our identity, control, and novelty.
Plenty of us do things that "we don't want to do'" aka it's not enjoyable in the moment, but we do it anyway because it fulfils an intrinsic motivation at the end of the day.
It would be fascinating to dive into some psychological research behind motivation... I'm sure there's more complexity there than what meets the eye.
How to stop caring so much about what everyone thinks?
Neil's method for combating social fear, HAA! - Hide, Apologise, Accept.
This is shown in masking and downplaying accomplishments, facts about ourselves, and thoughts. When we do this, it's worth asking ourselves: Is this done as an act of humility or an act of fear?
Neil prompts the reader to reflect on what it is about ourselves that we hide or downplay due to fear of judgement.
Then we Apologise
Shows itself through sharing aspects of yourself, but with uncertainty (language, tone of voice) => creates distance, awkwardness, and makes it seem as if we are regretful for taking up space or being ourselves.
Then we Accept who we are
By sharing aspects of ourselves with confidence.
Rejecting the responsibility to be the person we think people want us to be, instead choosing to accept who we are.
Neil quotes a famous Buddha story to convey the idea that one can choose to accept emotions from others, or just let them go.
Confidence = high opinion of self & high opinion of others
Key Takeaway #4 - We can't have it all, but we can have enough
The three S’ of success! Pick 2 - A lot of the times when we pursue one aspect of success, it inhibits our ability to achieve another.
Monetising work and chasing income.
Can block self-success => personal goals are set aside for the sake of making money.
Social approval, people holding your work in high regard.
Can block sales-success ==> think of all the shitty pop music out there that gets billions of streams, compared to some less popular but more thoughtful content out there. Though some might say art is subjective, there are plenty of artists that put more thought into their work than others and are greatly respected in their niche community, but are not so commercially successful.
Means feeling good and proud of your work.
According to Neil, this is not always marketable as it's answering the question: "What do I want?" instead of "What do others want?"
There are some rare cases in which people can achieve all three of these streams at a high level, but according to Neil, most will have to reflect on which S' to prioritise.
More vs Enough - Remember the lottery.
14/15 people who have ever lived, are now dead. We're pretty damn lucky to be alive right now and living in this time.
On average, those of us who live within affluent nations such as Australia have enough money to afford necessities (e.g. shelter, food, healthcare), and are doing vastly better than the majority of people in the world - people making professional salaries in high-income countries typically fall within the top 5% of income earners worldwide.
Some days are going to be shit, but even on our worst days, we can remember that just by being here, we've already won.
Key Takeaway #5 - It's OK to fail
We only treat triumphs and disasters differently because of what we perceive them to be in the moment. But sometimes, from a broader view of one's life, a triumph can play a part in a disaster down the road and a disaster holds an integral role in a triumph.
A triumph or a disaster is simply one slight adjustment in our paths, for the better or for the worse can't always be completely recognised during the moment.
I partially resonate with this. There have been countless times in my life that have been equivalent to going to a restaurant and asking for a burger but receiving pizza instead, in which case though I didn't get what I asked for, what was given to me was still pretty damn great.
But not every situation is like this, sometimes events occur in which one really has to stretch to view it as anything but an utterly horrible happening E.g. public health crisis', violence, poverty.
Having said that, it seems that these burger-pizza events are far more common in most of our lives than the utterly horrific ones.
Just do it
If you want to do something, just start, even if you’re not 100% prepared.
Want to write a book? Write a page. Then you can learn as you go with writing lessons, writer’s events, and brainstorming concepts.
Want to start working out? Go for a 2 minute run around the block. Then buy the new runners, join the gym, and hire a trainer.
You're never going to be 100% prepared, sometimes it's easier to just jump in and find your way than it is to overthink it.
Sometimes we think that we need to have the motivation or the confidence to do something before we do it. But actually, if we take action first and get the ball rolling, more motivation and confidence will come later.
Key Takeaway #6 - Work, Leisure & Purpose - Never Retire
Aside from income, what is work actually for?
We humans are soft and not weak in comparison to some other animals in the kingdom, so how did we find a way to survive this long and build a dominating society? By learning to use tools and work together as a group => socialisation is important.
We need to be social, the rising rates of depression due to isolation can testament to that
We have 168 hours in a week, and for most this time can be split into thirds- sleep, work, leisure
According to Neil, the work bucket provides structure in the day. It helps us set aside time to focus and build things, so you can spend the remaining 56 hours on leisure and rest. Leisure time outside of work should be spent doing things that bring joy and meaning.
A sense of accomplishment and learning
Small pleasures within the day => talking with people who you may not otherwise have met, challenging yourself, coffee & tea, going for a walk/leaving the house, these are all little things that make the day stimulating as well
Contributing to something bigger than yourself
Work is more than income. It helps give us a reason to get up in the morning. The pleasure of socialising with others, the sense of engagement in challenging yourself, and the fulfilment of contributing to something bigger than yourself.
We don’t want to stop doing things, we just want to do things we love
Germany brought the concept of retirement to light in 1889 - paying people 70 and over to leave the workforce. But at the time, the average lifespan was only around 70 years.
It's kinda weird how people work full-time for 40-50 years then just retire completely. Neil did some research on Okinawans in Japan, who live some of the longest lives in the world. A focus for Okinawans isn't on working full-time and then pursuing retirement as much as it is on fulfilling your Ikigai
Work, lifestyle, and leisure balance
Absolute income vs relative income:
A person who makes $200k per year and works 80 hours a week has a higher absolute income than a person who makes $60k a year and works 15 hours a week
But when we calculate the relative income, which is based on an hourly rate and quality of lifestyle, the person earning $50k/year comes out on top => $200,000/52/80 = $48 an hour vs $50,000/52/15 - $64 an hour AND this person obviously has more time to pursue other projects & interests
Consider the trade-off that you make for your time in exchange for money. For example, would you prefer a 10% raise or to work 10% less and free that time up? Both of these options have the same relative value.
4 Phases of Attention - According to Neil, we should float between each of these stages, not spending too much time in any one stage:
Theorising, writing, journaling, reflecting, contemplating
If you spend too much time here, you don’t make anything happen
Not thinking, just moving
If you spend too much time here, you don’t learn anything
Not thinking, not doing
If you spend too much time here, you don’t contribute anything
This area is underrated sometimes - we need time in the diffuse mode of thinking, where our mind is just floating around and our neural pathways aren’t so tight, in order to be creative
Aim to work at 85% most of the time, to allow yourself space
High thinking, high doing
If you spend too much time here, you burn-out
This is another of the concepts that didn't quite resonate with me. I think that some occupations naturally involve more of some of these stages than others. E.g. A person working in academia may spend a lot more time Thinking than a chef, who may spend a bit more time Doing. I don't think this means that either occupation is necessarily better than the other, or this has a significant impact on their quality of life.
Decisions & Prioritising - Choices, Time, Deadlines
Fewer choices = faster decisions, preserve decision making for the ones that actually matter. Some people remove choice by setting a routine (e.g. wearing the same-ish clothes each day, following the same schedule) and creating heuristics
Time: Set short and strict deadlines, "Work expands to fill the time given for its completion." A late deadline is permission to waste time
Access: Don’t multitask, there’s no such thing- you’re actually taking small breaks between each thing that you're doing when you context switch. Do one thing at a time with full attention, then the next. Eliminate distractions as much as you can: emails, messages, notifications, only keep what’s crucial.
Regulate low importance activities that take up a lot of time. E.g. Emails, checking your calendar, chores. Limit the amount of time spent on these activities to a minimum.
Automate low importance activities that don't use much time. E.g. Paying bills, routines, prepping food, buying toilet paper, picking clothes. Batch these activities together in bulk
Debate high importance decisions that take up a lot of time. E.g. Career/education changes, relationships. Don't try to skimp on these areas, pay careful consideration and research high impact decisions that are long-term
Effectuate high importance activities that don't take a lot of time. E.g. Having dinner with the family, checking in on your mates and coworkers, and getting outside each day.
Key Takeaway #6 - Be Authentic, be You
The 5 most common regrets of people towards the end of their lives:
"I wish I had the courage to live the life that’s 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 I had let myself be happier"
A common theme here is the subject of authenticity - Be You… it’s exhausting to be someone else.
Strive to avoid cognitive dissonance: what one says, what one thinks, and what one does should be in line... aside from when one's behaviour/thoughts are unhelpful :)
But how do we find out who we are? What do we like and don't like?
Neil encourages readers to try to reflect on questions such as:
What do I do on a Saturday morning when I have nothing planned?
What activities and opportunities naturally come from what I enjoy doing on a Saturday morning?
Who are the people I spend the most time with? What does that say about me?
Try stuff - Immerse yourself in the situation you’re interested in, and then notice your natural reaction to that situation:
Going to an interview for a new company? Don’t ask: "what’s the culture like?", ask for a 5 minute tour around the office and see for yourself.
Interested in trying something new? Find a cheap and quick way to try it out.
When you try this new thing, ask yourself the question: "How do I feel in this environment/thing? Relaxed? Excited? Or uneasy?"