I have been on a real self-help reading tear lately. I’ve been on a quest to learn more about what makes us happy and as a math nerd finding “The Happiness Equation” is ultimately the goal.
According to his blog, Neil Pasricha wrote the book as a love letter to his unborn son on how to live a happy life. I remember taking a moment of reflection after finishing the book and wondering why “self-help” is not a genre of books we help kids find.
The first self help book I ended up reading was “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie, and that was at the end of 2018. When I get around to it, I’ll do a separate post on that topic (#futurepost). My main point and surprise here is that despite being a fairly common occurence, mental health appears to have low priority in our society.
The first World Mental Health Day on October 10, 1992 was just two days after I was born. Call it what you want, but I would be shocked to meet a person that told me they never had a rough period. Self-help books are one of the best ways to help young people prepare for these before they happen. Again, this is a massive topic on it’s own that deserves its own post (#futurepost).
At 300 pages, this book has quite a bit of content. I’ll summarise the points that stood out to me, but ultimately would recommend picking this one up.
The book opens with suggestions for how to get the most out of it:
- Agree to disagree
- Change your scenery
- Create a seven-day challenge
As you get further along, you realise these are just concrete ways to apply some of the messages provided in the book.
The first point urges the reader to remember that they have the ability to slowly let new ideas in (neuroplasticity). In my opinion this is a key pillar of self help in general and something that people like to convince themselves is not true. Need proof, hand your iPhone to an staunch Android user. “None of this makes sense”. “I could never figure this out”. Are politer versions of the response you normally get. I believe it is important that we remember everyone is capable of learning something new. Most people believe this is possible for others around them, but I would argue they first need to accept is possible for themself.
The second point encourages the reader to read the book in different kinds of environments. One recurring theme in the book is retirement. Pasricha argues that retirement is ultimately what kills us. “When you’re through changing, you’re through”. He suggests that finding new things to do is what keeps us going. Without this “exercise” our brains atrophy. More broadly, the author lays out why he believes an Ikigai or “reason for being” is the answer to the question we are all asking…“Why?”.(#futurepost)
The third point encompasses the author’s belief that the absolute best thing you can do is take action. I have many thoughts in this area, especially how this related to the Software Sprint (#futurepost). Ultimately, by “doing” something even just one time, you prove to yourself that it is possible. This is the most difficult hurdle to conquer, and helps you enter a cycle of “Do”, “Can Do”, and “Want to Do”. As you do more things, you believe you can do more things, which ultimately leads you to want to do more things. I spent a long time believing I couldn’t do certain things, that I wasn’t good enough. Each time I had one of these thoughts, I drifted further and further from being able to. In hindsight, this mentality of “Do” first is exactly what ejected me from the evil twin loop “Don’t do”, “Can’t Do”, and “Don’t Want to Do”. As humans we are habitual creatures and I believe you can only mentally exist in one of those loops at a time. Which would you rather be in?
Want Nothing + Do Anything = Have Everything
If you aren’t paying attention it’s easy to mix this subtitle on the cover. This is it, this is “The Happiness Equation”.
Great Work -> Big Success -> Be Happy
This is how most people approach happiness. Searching for validation that they are good enough and thinking that each next validation is the thing that will bring them happiness. I’ve certainly had these thoughts. I think most of us are familiar with what comes next after you achieve Big Success - “Ok, now what? What is the next success that will make me happy”. Just like your latest consumer electronics purchase, the happiness fades within a week at best.
Be Happy -> Great Work -> Big Success
Pasricha suggests that finding happiness first is the key to the puzzle. He goes on to remind the reader that for 99% of history, humans main need was “Food and safety”. In modern times, this is essentially not a concern. Our brains have been wired over hundreds of thousands of years to survive. Our society has changed so quickly that our internal systems have not been updated to reflect reality. Fear and paranoia are just a couple of chemicals our bodies invented to avoid death. I joked the other day about how crossing the street is the most likely place I will die and therefore I fear it. “Unhappiness is nature’s way of keeping people on their toes”. When general stress has you down, remember that it was initially developed to help you avoid death - which is why it feels so awful. Take a breath and remember that almost all of the time that stress is not life or death and remind your brain to ease up on the “fight or flight” dosage so you can just “do”.
Another anecdote the author uses to hammer this point home is of a fisherman. In this story an tourist with an MBA visits a small village and meets a fisherman. He proceeds to lecture the fisherman on how he could fish longer hours to build up a surplus. Eventually using the extra money to buy a bigger boat. The extra boat will bring even more money in. Then eventually he could move to New York, deal directly with processing plants, and eventually sell it for millions. The fisherman asks how long this would take. “Twenty or twenty-five years”, replies the tourist. “And after that?”, the fisherman asks. The tourist tells him he can retire in a small village with his family, catch a few fish, and spend evenings with friends - exactly what he was already doing. By wanting nothing, the fisherman was already doing the things that the tourist was suggesting would take him 25 years to get to.
Thinking vs. Doing
|Low Doing||High Doing|
Thinking is where you are actively engaging the mind.
Do means you are just doing something (hiking, working out).
Burn is where some of the most productive work occurs. You get a shot or two of adrenaline and are in the zone. It feels great at first, until you inevitably burn out.
Space is where you recharge. Mediation, vacation, and relaxing are all examples. You use these to recover from periods of burning.
The main point here is that moving between these zones is how one can maintain happiness. Staying in one place for too long (mentally or physically) is not something we like to do.
|Low Importance||High Importance|
Prioritization is another undervalued topic. To illustrate this point, the author captured what a day of decisions looks like for him - 285 decisions in total. We are constantly barraged with choices to make, but most of those decisions are not important and mainly just distractions from more important things. You have “decided” to read this far, but I bet there’s something on your priority list that is above this.
Automate - low important decisions like what route to take to work or brand of toilet paper to buy is one step.
Effectuate - Nike, “Just do it”. If it’s important and won’t take very long just get it done so you can forget about it.
Regulate - Checking email/messages is a great example here. Regulate encourages you to make rules for how to handle these tasks and follow them.
Debate - These are really the only decisions that matter. If you have followed the other steps correctly, you should be left with the big decisions that deserve your time and attention. And thanks to the others, you will have that time to focus on these decisions. When you make decisions that are true to yourself, you will be a happier person.
This section introduces the “Do”, “Can Do”, and “Want to Do” cylce mentioned earlier. It is mainly filled with anecdotes of people and how they made this happen
Secret Chapter - Relationships
While the book primarily focuses on the reader as an individual, the secret chapter at the end acknowledges that relationships have a large impact on our happiness. It is a short chapter but makes at least one memorable point. With some simple math, Pasricha illustrates how our happiness affects our partners and other relationships we have. In his example, if both partners are happy 80% of the time, their good moods will overlap 64% of the time. A full third of time spent in this example will be with at least one person in a bad mood. Specifically 32% of the time one would be in a good mood and one would be in a bad mood. Finally 4% of the time you would both be in a bad mood. Extending this dramatically simplified example, over the course of a month there would be just over 1 day worth of overlap in bad mood. Those in a relationship probably could identify that about once a month some kind of argument or disagreement comes up. Remind yourself that no one is happy 100% of the time. If you are feeling upset with your partner, take a step back and ponder what the actual frequency of this is. I would say an 80% happy person is doing quite well, and that still leaves a day a month of storms colliding. Tying in an earlier point, even if you think you know what your happiness percentage is, there is a good chance you can improve it. Moods are contagious (good and bad). Keep this in mind when you find yourself out of balance with your partner. If you are feeling good, help lift the mood of your partner. If you aren’t try your best not to bring your partner down with you (as they will likely be the person to help pull you up).
The advice I found in this book is not necessarily new. However, certain thoughts are presented in unique ways that helps drive the point home. I won’t walk away remembering every word I read, but the main points are effectively made. One final theme that didn’t really fit in to the above structure and was strewn throughout the book deals with being yourself. “What do you do Saturday morning when you have nothing to do?” is the question posed by the author to help the reader identify what it is they really want to do. Fittingly, I started this post on a Saturday morning. Reflect on what you did your last Saturday morning, is it what you really wanted to do? If not, maybe you’re overdue for some thinking on your Ikigai. Or maybe assess how you are prioritizing things in your life currently. We can always be better, but don’t beat yourself up over it!