"Financial Planning ... it's not always about money."

The Happiness Equation

David M. Brenner profile photo

David M. Brenner, ChFC®, CLU®

D. M. Brenner, Inc.
Phone : (858) 345-1001
Schedule a Meeting

We are accustomed to the utilization of equations in financial planning, and while most of those tend to be numerical, there are a growing number of formulas that apply to the utilization of our non-financial resources. These resources—such as our time, influence, energy, and relationships—can be as important as our money and can often be scarcer.

That’s why I was especially attuned to the words of social scientist, best-selling author, and Harvard Business School professor, Dr. Arthur Brooks, when I attended his recent lecture and he insisted that happiness was something we could deliberately pursue. He even offered a happiness equation to aid us in that pursuit:

Happiness = Enjoyment + Satisfaction + Meaning

Let’s take a look at each of these components.

The Happiness Equation./Getty Images

Enjoyment, in this context, should not be presumed as a synonym for the word pleasure; in fact, Brooks suggested that “The most miserable people pursue pleasure and stop there.” But pleasure is usually a component of enjoyment nonetheless:

Enjoyment = Pleasure + Communion + Consciousness

And haven’t you found this to be true? We tend to enjoy a pleasurable experience more when we share it with someone else and mark that moment with a touch of deliberation!

How then, would we define satisfaction in this context? Brooks called it, “the joy of accomplishing a goal with effort.” He disputed the notion popularized by the Rolling Stones that we “can’t get no satisfaction,” but he did acknowledge that satisfaction can be fleeting, and that it is prone to depreciation.

This depreciation is likely most notable when we pursue satisfaction by purchasing material goods. Please pause for a moment to consider the satisfaction you felt with your most recent car purchase. You were possibly never more satisfied with that expenditure than the day you drove it home.

This, Brooks explained, is no accident. “We are wired to achieve more by the devaluation of that which satisfies us in the moment.” This phenomenon, known as homeostasis, keeps us striving for more, even though more may never satisfy. But rest assured that Brooks offers us an equation for satisfaction, too:

Satisfaction = Haves / Wants

Brooks recommends a “want less” strategy, rather than a “have more” strategy, especially because serial consumption can have the effect of perpetually fueling our wants and thereby shrinking our satisfaction. He also recommends a “reverse bucket list,” and literally writing out those things we might be striving for that we declare we no longer need for our satisfaction, our happiness.

This leads us to the final, and perhaps most elusive, of the components of happiness— meaning. How does Brooks define meaning?

Meaning = Coherence + Purpose + Significance

By coherence, Brooks means acknowledging that “things happen for a reason.” While he doesn’t seek to convert anyone to his religion, he does implore us that faith or a guiding philosophy or worldview offers us the perspective we need to find peace in how life unfolds, for good and ill.

Brooks describes significance as a recognition that “My life matters,” and “I am alive in order to do something” is the conviction he suggests gives us a sense of purpose. I confess that I struggled with this in my early adulthood, after a near-death car accident. At that time, I didn’t actually want a purpose other than myself, but it wasn’t until I submitted to this impulsion—that there was a purpose for my life—that I found peace, healing, and ultimately, a deep desire to find meaning in all phases of life.

I’ll leave you with one more tool from the Harvard professor—a three-step “learning algorithm”:

  1. Understand.
  2. Apply.
  3. Share.

Thank you for reading and thereby helping me check these three boxes. Now, if there are any lightbulb moments you experienced while reading, perhaps you’ll consider checking these three boxes yourself and cauterizing what you’ve learned.

For further reading, consider the free, open online version of Dr. Arthur Brooks’ Harvard Business School course called “Managing Happiness.” I also highly recommend his most recent book, “From Strength To Strength: The Roadmap For Finding Purpose, Meaning, And Success As We Age.”

By Tim Maurer, Contributor

© 2024 Forbes Media LLC. All Rights Reserved

This Forbes article was legally licensed through AdvisorStream.

David M. Brenner profile photo

David M. Brenner, ChFC®, CLU®

D. M. Brenner, Inc.
Phone : (858) 345-1001
Schedule a Meeting