Blog Article

Is there a formula for happiness?

By Merriman Wealth Management, Wealth Advisor
Published On 01/04/2011

With the new year upon us, many of us will be wondering how we can make 2011 a happier year than the one that has come to a close.

The book, “Stumbling on Happiness,” contains a story about a Dutch mathematician named Bernoulli, who in 1738, thought he’d discovered a simple mathematical formula that could predict happiness.

Putting his formula into non-mathematical terms, you simply take any decision you are pondering and predict the probability that this path will give you pleasure.  He believed that if you used this to guide you at every fork in the road, you would be able to achieve lasting happiness.

Alas, there was only one problem with Bernoulli’s equation:  We human beings have a heck of a time successfully predicting, i.e. imagining what will bring us pleasure and what won’t.  Although we may believe we want something, when we finally get it, it often doesn’t make us nearly as happy as we thought it would.

Or we get something we want and it makes us happy, but then we raise the bar for our future happiness:  I’m happy now that I have X, but I’ll be REALLY happy when I get Y.

Although Bernoulli’s formula proved to be far too simplistic, he was correct in realizing that wealth and possessions, in and of themselves, don’t ensure happiness.  In fact, he believed that the more of anything we come to possess over time—dollars, houses, cars, you name it—the less these things make us incrementally happier.

So what, if anything can we take away from Bernoulli’s theories on happiness?  Is there anything practical that would help each of us live happier lives in the New Year?

Happiness is such a deeply personal and complex subject, that I’m not sure any broad, sweeping conclusions can be extracted from his work or anyone else’s for that matter that would apply to all of us, all of the time.

But what I have learned about happiness in my own life is this:  it isn’t located out there somewhere in the distant future.  Nor is it something I should keep waiting to achieve as I once believed when I was younger.

Rather it is here for me to experience every single day of my life if I want to, in the most simple moments:  the rich aroma of coffee beans as I pour them into the grinder in the morning, the sound of a friend belly laughing on the phone, a text message from my daughter or husband saying they miss me, and the warm sunlight on my face during a walk around the lake near my home.

These are just the ones from yesterday that I recall.  These kinds of pleasurable moments happen every day in abundance and all I have to do is slow down to notice them, even some of them, to considerably raise my level of happiness.

Being a little rusty on my high school algebra, I won’t try to convert this into a mathematical formula.  But I think you get the picture.

I still admire Bernoulli though for attempting to find a formula for happiness.  These few sentences taken from the end of the book sum up nicely his place in history:

Daniel Bernoulli dreamed of a world in which a simple formula would allow us all to determine our futures with perspicacity and foresight.  But foresight is a fragile talent that often leaves us squinting, straining to see what it would be like to have this, go there, or do that.  There is no simple formula for finding happiness.

To that last sentence I would add this: except stopping to appreciate the small daily pleasures that happen to us all—one moment and one day at a time.

To our Merriman clients, our friends, and our readers, we wish you many of these moments in the new year!

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By Merriman Wealth Management, Wealth Advisor

At Merriman, we manage your wealth so you can lead your best life. We take care of the financial planning and investment management, so you can deal in more possibilities and have the space you need to dream big.

Because it’s time to stop asking "What should I do?" and start saying, "This is what I could do."

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