The mathematical formula for happiness

Why is it that some people seem so much happier than others? Why is it that different people, with seemingly identical lives, can have such diverse levels of happiness?

Why do some pastors sing as they sail through the week, and some pastors wail like they’ve been the recipient of a daily root canal? Why do some mums ‘glow’ as they shop with their three kids in tow, and some growl? Why is it that the Karachi airport crowd seem to smile heaps more than those at Melbourne’s Terminal 2? What is the secret to happiness?

The answer is given in the Scriptures, of course. But before I go there, let me tell you why I’m asking the question. It was prompted by a novel I read recently. Numbered Account is a murder mystery written by Japanese, US and Swiss (what a combination!) author Christopher Reicht. Reicht’s main character, Nicholas Neumann, in a moment of quiet reflection, throws out a great one-liner: he says, “Happiness is equal to reality divided by expectations”. What he uttered was the mathematical formula for happiness. This sentence was so profound, I had to pause: I stopped to take the time to savour his point and digest it. I even wrote his formula down on a piece of paper in classical mathematical format (i.e. with equal sign, numerator, denominator, horizontal line, etc).

Neumann’s formula really is a profound observation. It’s a very helpful observation or formula because it assists us in working out what either increases or diminishes our happiness or joy. According to the formula, happiness can decrease for two reasons:

1. Reality gets worse

Firstly, the reality of the lives we live gets worse. Our circumstances take a dive. For example, discovering that your superannuation has halved in value over the past three months, going through a miscarriage, forgetting our wife’s birthday … again (arrgh!)

Now, these three scenarios are really horrible things to experience, and yet what we all know to be true is that some people are more joyful than others in the midst of the same trial. Why is this the case? It is often related to the second cause of unhappiness.

2. Our expectations are unrealistic

Even though our circumstances can take a dive and our happiness can decrease, I want to focus on the second cause of unhappiness—the denominator in the equation—the less obvious and even more insidious cause of unhappiness—that is, unrealistic expectations.

Now I don’t know if you’re used to fractions, but if you look at the formula above, you will notice that happiness is inversely proportioned to expectations. As expectations increase, happiness decreases. If a person walks around with very high expectations of life, their happiness is tenuous. If a person expects little, their happiness increases.

You see this in life all the time. Let me give you some examples:

  • You go to your week 19 ultrasound expecting to find out your baby’s gender. You’re told it’s a boy. You buy the little wooden multicoloured teddy bear letters that spell B-A-R-R-Y. You paint the nursery blue. You’re expecting a boy. 21 weeks later, you give birth to a bouncing baby girl! Argh!!! You’re still happy that you have a healthy baby, but you are stressed; after all, it’s very hard to find a girl’s name that is an anagram of B-A-R-R-Y.
  • You expect Baz Luhrmann’s Australia to be a 9/10, but in reality, it’s a 5. Your joy reduces, and you walk away glum.

Now, the above examples aren’t big clangers, are they; there are other situations in life that are much more serious. There are some expectations people carry around that, when they are not fulfilled, cause them to sink into very deep lows—deep depressions … even despair.

What I’ve noticed is that Christians adopt the expectations of the world without first filtering them through the word of God. Christians should never ‘expect’ to have, to be or to do anything that our gracious heavenly Father has not promised to give them, make them or empower them to do.

Let me share with you some common erroneous expectations and how they weigh against God’s word. Have you ever heard someone utter sad statements like these?

  • “I’ve just turned 30. I thought I’d be married by now. I feel like I’m missing something.”
    • God never promises a marriage partner.
    • Jesus was not married. He wasn’t “missing something”.
    • Have you ever noticed what happens at Christmas time? People sit around the tree and open gifts they’ve been given. Sometimes Barry looks at Bob’s gift and wishes it was his. It is the same with marital status. The singles have been given a gift (1 Cor 7:32-34, 38), but often they look sideways and want marriage. The marrieds have been given a gift—a great gift!—but often they too look sideways and wish they were single again. Godliness with contentment is great gain (1 Tim 6:6).
  • “I thought life gets easier as you get older.”
    • You need a lobotomy to believe this one. From a physical point of view, it is absurd. What did Lazarus do post-John 11? He died! What will all of us do? Die. Death usually involves sickness, sickness usually involves pain, and pain is plentiful in old age (cf. Eccl 11:10).
    • From a responsibility point of view, life gets harder too! The older you get, the more responsibility you bear. Responsibility hurts; the older you get, the more people you are responsible for. This means more people competing for your time and attention. This means unhappy people, and this means conflict. Look at the New Testament letters: what do elders/overseers/leaders have to do? They have to preach sound doctrine (Titus 1:9). Woo Hoo! What else do they have to do? Refute those who contradict it (Titus 1:9). Doh!
  • “I find it really hard being a Christian. My atheistic family give me more curry than the North Indian Diner.”
    • What did you expect? 2 Timothy 3:12 says “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be pampered [oops!] persecuted”!
    • Jesus’ family thought he was a lunatic too, despite the fact he could do really cool party tricks (Mark 6:4).
  • “I thought being a pastor would be really satisfying, but I really miss my old architectural firm.”
    • It is no accident that 1 Timothy begins with ‘fight’ language and ends with ‘fighting words’ (1 Tim 1:18, 6:12).
    • It is no accident that, in 2 Timothy, Paul’s apprentice is told to ‘man up’ or ‘be strong’ and to “share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 2:1, 3).

I won’t go any further; I think you can see my point. Perhaps it would be wise to do the following:

  1. Take note of when you feel unhappy or down.
  2. Write down how you feel.
  3. Write down why you feel down.
  4. Try to work out whether your mood is a result of an unfulfilled expectations.
  5. Run that expectation through the filter of God’s word.
  6. Finally, do the one thing that will stop you from losing heart (i.e. succumbing to helplessness) or losing your mind (i.e. succumbing to hopelessness)—that is, obey Philippians 4:4-7:

    Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

    We are to rejoice and pray, for “this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess 5:16-18)

Perhaps you can point us to some other Scriptures that can help us train our expectations.

8 thoughts on “The mathematical formula for happiness

  1. Thanks, I found your article helpful, although I wonder if it could fleshed out with more thought about desires.  In other words, I think it is helpful to know that I might rightly desire something, but not get it.
    Some desires are wrong, but not all.  It’s not wrong, I think, to desire to be married, although it is probably wrong to expect it.  We have some desires that will never be met in this age because they are supposed to point us back to God, and because of the effects of sin and God’s curse on the world.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Ben. I think the issue of happiness and contentment is a live one, and I hope you guys will revisit it in future. In fact, I hope MM has a guidebook to “Joy” in the works, that would worth reading.

    You quote God’s command to “Rejoice”. Can you expand on what that means? Does it mean saying, “Praise the Lord” when your heart is heavy and joy is the last thing you are feeling? Does it mean something else?

  3. A very helpful equation. Alain De botton in Status Anxiety comes to a similar conclusion. We expect much more than our ancestors who never thought of rising above their parents ‘station in life. If dad was a blacksmith you would be too. Plus, they didn’t watch inane ads and TV shows claiming that you could be anything you wanted to be. Biblical expectations is a great basis for contentment.

  4. Thanks Ben,
    Your analysis of the equation is very helpful.  It’s one of those things that I think we all know, but it’s easy to lose sight of the wood for the trees…
    It might be fruitful to have a follow-up discussion on the connection/distinction between ‘happiness’ and ‘joy’.  That’s another perennial debate that keeps popping up.

  5. Great post, mate.

    Also Acts 14 : 21 & 22 – Then (Paul and Barnabas) returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said.

  6. Hi Kris,

    Thanks for your comment. No I don’t think it is wrong to desire things – so long as they are in accord with the will of God. If a Christian is being consumed by passion (1 Cor 7:9), it is very right and good and wise to want (& pray for) a wife / husband. The problem in Christendom today is that people want a spouse even when they may not be troubled by lust at all. Few Christians contemplate 1 Cor 7:37-38 seriously. Few think that singleness is a desirable gift. I hope I’ve responded appropriately to your comment. You’re right, my post was more about expectation than desires. I have two gospel guerilla friends who have just started doing hard core coal face evangelism jobs. They need funding. I desire, I wish that God would allow $50,000 to ‘come my way’ so that I could throw it their way. I desire it, I pray for it, but if it doesn’t come I won’t be angry with God. He never promised it.

    Hi Craig,

    Joy! What does it mean to rejoice? That is a profound question and it is at times like these that I feel close to Winnie the Pooh. What is said of him? He is a ‘bear of little brain’. I’ll write more on this in another post, but for now I’ll share some thoughts.

    Happiness is a subset of joy. Joy is bigger and richer than happiness. Happiness is getting to level 7 of Halo 3 (apparently that is a computer game!!). Joy is the feeling the 9 old son has, when he’s mowed the lawn by himself for the first time and his Dad comes outside, looks the lawn over, looks at his son and says, “Well done son, you’ve done a mans job of mowing the lawn.” Joy is a deep, rich & relational happiness. Joy can be ‘enjoyed’ when the muscles ache and the sweat beads on the forehead and the grassclipping scratch you inside the socks. Joy can be ‘enjoyed’ in the deep crevices of life’s trials. (James 1:3-5) Happiness almost always involves smiles, and is almost always fleeting. Joy is knowing, being aware of, being secure in the deep and rich love of God. Christian Joy is feeling like the lawn mowing son all the time as a result of the Cross.

    So is it saying, “Praise the Lord” when your heart is heavy? I think of some of the really sad things Emma and I have experienced, e.g. miscarrying twins in 2002. It was SO sad. I am a twin and have loved every moment of being a twin. We were distraught. In the midst of that did Emma and I walk around saying, “Praise in the Lord.” Well, yes, but not with tamborines and Hollywood smile. It was more “Praise the Lord, he has given us an adopted son, Shaun, who he gave salvation to; the Lord has given us a daughter Isabella already . . . many of our friends cannot have any children at all. Praise the Lord, that our twins, these two special little people, who we never got to know, are in the palm of God’s hand. We praise you Father for all that you’ve given to us thus far, and the inheritance that you will bestow on us in Christ, on the final day.”

    Rejoicing is (i) being thankful continuously (Phil 4:7) (ii) not despairing – i.e. still praying (iii) knowing God will give the resources you need to persevere (1 Cor 10:13) (iv) knowing God is working all things things together for those he loves (Rom 8:28) and (v) knowing God will pilot your soul into the harbour called “Heaven”. (John 10:28)

    [Yikes Craig, this response is longer than the blog!!]

    Beate & Alan, good comments men.

    Ben, hopefully the above comments have something to say re: your question. I am a babe in the woods re: joy v happiness. I’ll do some more thinking about it.

    Please share your thoughts!

    Others? Please chip in!

  7. Tried this comment last night and not sure if it got through. If it did please don’t post it twice

    Hi Ben

    Interesting post (and not just because of the maths!!). We covered something recently in 1Timothy 6 where Paul is talking about contentment, particularly in relation to money/wealth. I have no mathematical formula to prove contentment=happiness, but its probably a good first approximation.

    I think the relevant passage is 1Timothy 6:6-8 “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we bought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing we will be content with that.”

    Another passage that might relate to expectations particularly regarding work for us blokes is Gods words to Adam in Genesis 3:17-19 “Cursed is the ground because of you: through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life….By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground”.

    It is easy to forget that (simply) getting food to feed ourselves is meant to be HARD work, especially (like I do) sitting in an air conditioned building all day.

    Following on from the Genesis 3:17 quote we have in Romans 8:19 that creation has expectations “The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed” (NIV)

    But at present it is “subjected to frustration” v20 (?unhappiness, I know its a very
    loose translation)

    Warning a maths argument approaching.
    As pointed out, in this life, we seem to have:
    Earthly expectations > Earthly reality
    and thus
    happiness < 1 ie unhappy.

    Now I could be wrong here but in heaven I suspect
    Heavenly reality >>>> earthly expectations of heaven
    (reality of heaven will be way better than my earthly expectations of heaven)
    making happiness >>>> 1
    (may not be theologically / doctrinally correct but I think the maths stacks up)

    And so in Romans v21 “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (got to be happy with that)

    Or applying to “fellow heirs with Christ” –  Romans 8:18 says “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

    Sorry I’ve been a bit loose with the interpretation of happiness/unhappiness (I was
    better at maths than english), but the point I am trying to make is
    Heavenly Happiness = Heavenly reality/earthly expectations of heaven = infinity
    no matter what the value of earthly expectations

    Now for Hell (abscence of God)
    Hells Reality <<<< Our lowest earthly expectations of hell
    and so
    Happiness in Hell = Hells Reality/Expectations=0
    for all values of Earthly Expections

    Hope the above makes sense to someone other than me (I know its not very good biblically or mathematically), but it was fun for a Thursday night.
    For those that don’t remember (and why would you bother to remember)

    > greater than

    < less than

  8. Sometimes, people DO need to repent of their expectations —I met a woman once who was quite angry that God had not performed according to her program and provided her with a husband by a particular age, and I think that’s a sin (I must also say she was one of the most spinsterly people I’ve ever met!)

    But more often, these sorts of comments are a sign of grief rather than anger with God.  And grief is not sin—it’s part of the process of adjusting to reality.  Mereover, some griefs run very deep: Scripture itself tells us that the barren womb never says ‘Enough’.  I imagine most godly single women have noticed that God hasn’t promised them a marriage partner or children, and they might be looking for more than the rather obvious points listed, if they are raising their singleness with a married male minister.  Gosh, maybe they need a bit of help with their burden, rather than being told to get over themselves and preach the gospel, true and right as that might be.

    Some kinds of hurt, such as the death of a child, must hurt more because so few people these days understand the experience.  A century ago, this loss was much more common, so everyone would have had someone to talk to.  Perhaps part of the job of the minister is to make sure that people can find someone with a similar experience to learn from?

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