Calculating Happiness

Dear Happiness Hunters:

Rakesh Sarin is UCLA’s Anderson Paine Chair in Management and has created some controversy by claiming that happiness can be described mathematically.

The simple equation: Happiness = Reality – Expectations.

(Part of me delights in the new discipline of behavioral economics, championed by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. My delight arises from an argument I used to have with my high school and undergraduate friend, Charlie Fishkin. He was an economics major, and I was in sociology. He used to claim econ’s superiority to soc because of its reliance on mathematical modeling, thus making it more scientific. I would argue back with an equation of my own: Economics = Social Psychology + Money. Charlie went on to create the Office of Risk Assessment for the Securities and Exchange Commission. I like to think I moved on to work for the department of Soul Assessment, for the Eternal Security Commission. I am confident that Charlie and I are equally happy; but that gets us back to Sarin’s equation.)

There’s an elegance to Sarin’s proposition, one that has stuck in my head for several weeks since I first heard it. The elegance is the way it leads us to focus on the controllable rather than the uncontrollable variable. In unhappiness the human tendency is to focus on reality, the thing we cannot control. It rained so our picnic is ruined; the market plunged so our retirement is delayed. Our first reaction is disappointment, focusing on the uncontrollable variable—the weather or market conditions. Sarin’s equation suggests there is another variable, one which we can control, and that is our expectations.

This formula explains why, a number of years ago, I stopped buying lottery tickets. I wasn’t a regular player, but I confess I could not resist tossing a dollar towards the chance of a nine-figure payout. I found that when I bought my ticket, my mind immediately raced to all the good things I would do when I collected my winnings. There was the homeless shelter, the pay-it-forward café, college education for grandkids and underprivileged children, VOCEL would receive endowment funds, and there was the Jonathan Krogh Chair of Social Justice at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Between the time of my dollar expenditure and the drawing, I found a certain euphoria of anticipation. My happiness equation was balanced in this way: Happiness = Fantasy = Expectation; that was until Reality factored into the equation. Without fail, when the drawing occurred (and no, in case you were wondering, I never won), I found myself unhappy. The deficit between reality and my fanciful expectations was substantial. And although the state of unhappiness only lasted for a moment or two, I found myself feeling not only unhappy but also stupid for having paid $1 for the privilege. I realized there were so many better ways to lose a buck without the consequence of disappointment.

At our son Calvin’s wedding, it rained. A beautiful outdoor ceremony was planned, and the bride Meg, overwhelmed by the emotion of the day, began to cry. Her dad Tom compassionately took her hand and tried to explain how the staff was at that very moment moving the venue into the tent and everything would be okay. With tears in her eyes she told her dad, “But this is not how I pictured it.” He cupped her face in his hands, looked her in the eye and said compassionately, “Then change the picture, baby.” By the conclusion of the evening it was still raining, but no one could deny we were all happy.

Working to find happiness in nothing less than what is, I remain,

With love,
Jonathan Krogh
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