Getting the math right

Last month, I took advantage of a deal to subscribe to The New York Times, and in the last several weeks I’ve collected a respectable stack of Saturday and Sunday editions waiting to be read.

I got to a few back issues today and discovered, much to my delight, this amazing opinion piece titled “A Formula for Happiness.” Have you read it? Am I dating myself by just now being part of a conversation about an article so stunningly impressive as this one that was published weeks ago? (Apologies if you can’t read that link without a subscription; leave a comment and I’ll forward you the text of it. It’s worth it!)

Seriously. I’m reading bits and pieces of most of the paper, I admit. I started this write-up, though, as was riveted to every word. I was nodding along, exclaiming in agreement and, by the end of it, admittedly teary-eyed by the call to arms author Arthur C. Brooks posits.

The article starts simply enough: we’re far enough along in the scientific research behind happiness that we know what contributes to it, and what doesn’t.

Genes most certainly do. Genetic make-up, the piece contends, makes up as much as 50% of a person’s happiness. Events and experiences also contribute to overall happiness, though not with lasting impact. For example: a move cross-country, having landed one’s dream job (sound familiar?) does provide a significant boost in happiness. The boost, however, is fleeting. And months after the event or experience, the boost is all but dissipated. Like a drug, one apparently needs to have positive events and experiences on a regular basis in order to keep the happiness high.

The third factor in happiness, the article stipulates, is that of earned success. That is, quite literally, the pursuit of happiness – when done right – can actually pay off quite handsomely. Faith, family and community are all understandably valuable in one’s overall happiness. “Few dying patients regret over-investing in rich family lives, community ties and spiritual journeys,” Brooks astutely observes. But there’s a fourth factor worth pursuing in an effort to round out one’s contentment quotient: work. Yes, when done right, work is a significant and necessary piece of the happiness puzzle.

Says Brooks:

Assemble these clues and your brain will conclude what your heart already knew: Work can bring happiness by marrying our passions to our skills, empowering us to create value in our lives and in the lives of others. Franklin D. Roosevelt had it right: “Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.”

Wow. Just wow.

There’s something liberating in that, isn’t there? It’s liberating to know I’m not crazy, that the last 10 years of my life spent building a resume that would land me a job I truly wanted, knew in my heart I could succeed at, haven’t been in vain. In fact, this pursuit of career success has actually been the pursuit of happiness.

And that last line – the idea that happiness exists in “the thrill of creative effort.” What relief to hear – from FDR himself, no less – that creative effort, that work which results in new thought or new expression or new direction is in fact the very work where bliss exists. There’s always a twinge of guilt that creeps in to my mind with any thought given to spending hours writing or reading instead of being “more productive.”

Out! Out, you pesky guilt! I pick up this pen in the pursuit of happiness!

Brooks concludes the galvanizing piece by opining that this opportunity to earn one’s success (and therein pursue happiness) is an unalienable right, as much as life and liberty also called out in the Declaration of Independent. He calls for more effort to right the inequality wrongs so prevalent today, and I can’t say I disagree. I don’t have all the answers (does anyone?), but he presents a strong case:

It is not enough to assume that our system blesses each of us with equal opportunities. We need to fight for the policies and culture that will reverse troubling mobility trends. We need schools that serve children’s civil rights instead of adults’ job security. We need to encourage job creation for the most marginalized and declare war on barriers to entrepreneurship at all levels, from hedge funds to hedge trimming. And we need to revive our moral appreciation for the cultural elements of success.

A seismic shift in cultural happiness is going to take a lot of effort at every level of society. In the meantime, I intend to do my part in my own little corner of the world, balancing the equation each and every day so the end result is a happiness I know I’ve earned.