Formulas for Life

How to Be Happy: 63 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be HappierMost people like to say that their ultimate goal in life is: to be happy. One common formula for attaining happiness is:

Happiness = Reality – Expectations

This formula states that your happiness depends on your level of expectations minus the reality you face. In other words, the lower your expectations, or the better your reality, the greater your happiness. Now, how you define a “better” reality is up to you, but this can include your health, family and friends, income, career and material possessions.

Although happiness is desirable, it’s not realistic to be happy all the time. There are times when we’re bored, sad, angry, depressed or frustrated. Ironically, happiness means realizing that you won’t always be happy.

A more realistic state to strive for is something subtler than happiness: contentment. Contentment is not happiness; it’s a state of mind where you view your life positively and are satisfied with what you have now, while at the same time recognizing that you may want more in the future.

Returning to the formula: Happiness = Reality – Expectations: if we replace Happiness with Contentment, we get: Contentment = Reality – Expectations

However, this formula doesn’t explain what affects our expectations. For that, we’ll need 4 more formulas.

Formula #1: Expectations = Unacceptance – Acceptance

Acceptance is viewing things, people and events in their current state with no desire to change them. Unacceptance is the opposite; it’s an intolerance for the way things are.

This formula states that the more in life you accept and the fewer things you don’t, the lower your expectations will be, and the greater your contentment.

Things, people and events that you can choose to accept include:

  • your family members, friends, co-workers, and spouses
  • where you live
  • you job, health and age
  • your physical possessions

Most of these you have no control over. The ability to recognize the things you can and cannot control is the basis for the serenity prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.

Contentment is knowing that the only thing you have control over in your life is how you see your life; in other words, believing is seeing.

Formula #2: Expectations = Regret – Hope

Regret and hope are mirror images. Regret is disappointment over the past; hope is optimism for the future. The less regret and more hope you have, the lower your expectations and the greater your contentment.

Although regret and hope are opposites, one thing they have in common (and which relates to acceptance) is that they involve periods of time you have no control over. We can’t change the past or directly change the future. We can only live in, and therefore change, the present, realizing that the present is the past of the future.

Formula #3: Expectations = Ingratitude – Gratitude

Gratitude (or thankfulness) is one of the most important keys to contentment. Being grateful means not just accepting people and things as they are, but appreciating them as they are. It’s practically impossible for contented people to be ungrateful and for miserable people to be grateful.

The more grateful you are, the lower your expectations and the greater your contentment.

Formula #4: Expectations = Selfishness – Selflessness

Closely related to gratitude and ingratitude are selfishness and selflessness. Selfishness is thinking only of yourself; selflessness is thinking of others instead of yourself. There’s nothing wrong in thinking for yourself, but if you think only of yourself, you’re selfish. Finding the balance can be challenging: as the sage Hillel said: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?”

The more selfless you are, the lower your expectations and the greater your contentment.

The Pleasure Principle

In addition to these formulas, there’s another one many people live by, one which directly impedes their contentment: Happiness = Pleasure – Pain

People believe that to be happy, they need to have as much pleasure as possible and avoid pain at all costs. This is due to a misperception that pain and pleasure are opposites; they are not.

Ask any parent what’s the source of their greatest pleasure and they’ll likely answer: “my children”. Then ask them what’s the source of their greatest pain, and, again, they’ll likely answer “my children”.

Every meaningful pleasure in life requires painful efforts, often over years. To have the pleasure of graduating from college or university, you must endure painful years of learning. To have the pleasure of succeeding in a career, you must endure the pain of finding work, followed by years of work, which can often be painful. To have the pleasure of a successful marriage, you must endure the pain of finding a mate, potential break ups and working to improve yourself and your relationship.

This is not “short term pain for long term gain”. It is long term pain for longer term meaningful gain. Therefore, we must discard the Happiness = Pleasure – Pain formula and replace it with a new one.

Call to Action

Knowing that painful actions ultimately lead to contentment, and recognizing that our expectations influence our contentment, we can reveal the final formula.

Formula #5: Contentment =  Painful long term actions3 – Expectations

As the formula indicates, positive painful actions needed to accomplish meaningful pleasures exponentially affect contentment. For example, you may need to take 5 painful long term actions to achieve one of your life’s goals: 53 equals 125; such is the power of action.

You can increase your contentment further by lowering your expectations through having more acceptance, hope, gratitude and selflessness and less unacceptance, regret, ingratitude and selfishness.

Wisdom is knowing the right price to pay in pain to get the right pleasure. The final portion of Hillel’s quote is “And if not now, when?”. This is the ultimate call to action and the only true path to contentment.

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Movements to insanity

If there’s one name that’s synonymous with chess, it’s Bobby Fischer. Although he was an exceptional player, there were others who could have beat him if they’d been given the chance, but he refused to play them. Why then is Fisher so associated with chess? He’ll certainly be remembered for defeating the Soviets at a game they dominated for decades. However, he’ll also be remembered for the same reason the Titanic is associated with ocean liners and the Challenger with space shuttles: they were all disasters and we tend to remember disasters more than successes.

I recently read Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall – from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness. The title neatly summarizes the book: a fascinating but ultimately dismal story of a man who was brilliant at chess but little else.

Born in Chicago into a family of modest means and growing up in Brooklyn, Fischer had a troubled upbringing. Abandoned by his father, his mother often struggling to make ends meet, chess became a refuge for him as a child. He quickly rose through the chess ranks, reaching a pinnacle with his historic defeat of his nemesis Boris Spassky at the 1972 World Chess Champion in Reykjavík, Iceland.

With his remarkable success, Fischer instantly became a world-wide celebrity. However, his stubbornness and perfectionism led to his downfall. He rejected many endorsements that today would be worth almost $30 million U.S. Having achieved his dream to be world champion, he’d given no thought to what would happen afterwards. With no clear goal in life, he drifted aimlessly.

Living near poverty and surviving on the kindness of others, in 1992 he played a rematch against Spassky in the former Yugoslavia. The game brought about the wrath of the U.S. government who charged him with breaking the sanctions against Yugoslavia, in place due to the Bosnian War. He was briefly detained in Japan but eventually found refuge in Iceland, which took pity on him and allowed him to settle there.

Most likely schizophrenic, Fischer’s mind continued to deteriorate. His delusional and paranoid antisemitic railings and his joy over the September 11, 2001 attacks were further signs of his disturbed mind. Unfortunately for Fischer, paranoia, often a symptom of schizophrenia, is infused into chess. Each player has no way of knowing what their opponent intends to do. Paranoia is constructive in chess but destructive in the real world.

Other chess players who suffered from mental illness include:

  • Russian Soviet grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi: claimed he played a dead man
  • Polish chess grandmaster Akiba Rubinstein: suffered from schizophrenia; jumped out a window because he thought a fly was chasing him
  • Austrian Chess master Wilhelm Steinitz: claimed to have played God through a wireless connection, and won

Perhaps most similar to Fischer was U.S. chess champion Paul Morphy. Only a few years after winning the world championship in 1858 at age 21, he wandered the streets, aimlessly muttering to himself. Like Fischer, Morphy was probably schizophrenic; was a genius who stopped playing at the height of his career; spent the rest of his life in obscurity, and died relatively young.

The obvious question is: does chess cause mental illness or attract those who have it? The answer may be both. Of course most chess players are mentally sound. However, some people who have difficulty relating to others and who are quirky, obstinate and somewhat autistic may be attracted to the game, viewing it as an escape from the real world.

Quirky individuals have also been attracted to the computer and software industries. Chess and computers have similar qualities: both are logical, abstract, systematic, unemotional entities that do not criticize or judge.

Chess, like computers, is binary. You either win or lose a tournament (although you can win, lose or draw a specific game.) The building blocks of chess (the squares) are black and white. The building blocks of computers are zeroes and ones. There are 64 squares on the chessboard, or 26. All computing storage is also measured in exponents of 2, for example, 1 megabyte equals 220 bytes.

Life, however, is non-binary; it is full of uncertainty and doubt. People who see the world in black and white (as Fischer did), are blind to the many shades of grey in between, and colour blind to all else.

Fischer’s downfall teaches us that technical skill alone is not enough to succeed. Many highly technical people fail because they don’t have the mental skills needed in the business world, including: empathy, social skills, personal communication, the ability to work with others, open-mindedness, positivity, listening ability, professionalism, dependability and flexibility.

These skills are called “soft skills”, in contrast to “hard skills”, the technical skills such as computer programming or accounting. The irony is that for many people, the “hard” skills are easy and the “soft” skills are hard. The way to improve soft skills is no different than improving the hard ones – practice and experience. A person who finds it difficult to interact with others must practice interacting with others. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s through discomfort that we grow.

Fisher died in 2008 from degenerative kidney failure, after earlier refusing medication and treatment. He was 64, one year for each square on the chess board.

It’s easy to see how chess can drive someone with an underlying mental condition like Fischer over the brink. The first two moves of a game have 400 possible combinations. That number grows exponentially after each move. The total number of possible moves (excluding those that wouldn’t make sense) is 1040, which looks like this:

10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

This number is 10,000 trillion trillion trillion, about the number of atoms in the solar system.

To play chess is to play at the edge of a black hole; to play with infinity; to play, as Wilhelm Steinitz claimed, with God almighty.

Circular reasoning

Normal.

Normal is regular. Average. Medium.

Normal is safe, familiar, warm and comfortable.

Normal is the thing you know.

It is what is.

But normal isn’t great.

Normal isn’t fantastic.

Normal can never be amazing.

These words from the Mini “Not Normal” Campaign summarize the paradox of normal. On the one hand, most people want to be considered normal; no-one wants to be thought of as abnormal. However, we don’t want to be thought of as only normal. We’d like to believe that we are unique, special, and different than everyone else, that is, not normal.

Normal is the most common thing that people are or the way most people act under a given set of circumstances. Because normal applies to most people, most people are, by definition, normal. It would difficult to have a functioning society if the majority of its people did not behave normally. Such a society would be in chaos, as everyone pushed the boundaries of normal behaviour.

However, society also requires a few people to not be normal. The great leaders, innovators, thinkers and agitators who push the world forward and change it for the better are not normal. Einstein, Michelangelo, Picasso, Freud, and Steve Jobs were exceptional, refused to accept the normal world they were born into (the status quo) and fought hard to change it. It is only after their accomplishments become well known and accepted that these individuals became part of the new normal.

Because normal applies to the mind, it’s a major component of psychiatry. People who act or think in an abnormal way, especially if it can cause them or others harm, should receive treatment. A desire to eat candies is normal, but a desire to eat several kilograms of candies a day is not. However, there is a sad history of labeling people abnormal or deviant who were simply different than others. There’s only a two letter difference between sane and insane, but in those two little letters lies all the difference.

Normal has a shape. Some shopping malls have large circular sculptures hanging from their ceilings. The reason for this is psychological. The malls are carefully designed to signify they are a safe and comfortable environment. When shoppers see circles, they see safety, because a circle has no sharp edges. People who feel safe and comfortable are more likely to have a longer shopping experience.

A sphere is a three-dimensional circle. Bubbles form naturally into spheres because it’s the smallest shape required to hold the air inside the soap film. Planets are spherical, because when they form, they are extremely hot, making the planet fluid; the planet eventually succumbs to the gravitational pull from its center. The best way to get the planet’s mass to the centre is to form a sphere – it is nature’s “laziest” shape.

Roundness, therefore, is a physical manifestation of normal. But there’s another subtler link between roundness and normal.

One way of measuring normal is to plot the values of something on a graph. For example, if you plot the ages, weights or heights of people, they would follow a pattern that looks like this:

 

 

 

 

 

This shape is called a normal distribution or bell curve. It’s a visual representation of what is normal. There’s a formula that represents this normal distribution. It’s a complex one but here it is:

 

 

 

 

At the bottom portion of this formula near the centre, you’ll see the number π (pi). If you remember your high school math, pi is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, approximately 3.14. That is, at level of mathematics, there’s a connection between circles and how things are normally distributed.

Perhaps that is why so many things that we find normal are round, from the rings on our fingers, to the wheels we move on, the dishes we eat off and the buttons we press and dress with. It is why normal people are called “well rounded”.

Nature has methodically programmed into our world the desire for normal through this shape. Even the body parts we use to perceive roundness: the eye’s cornea, pupil, lens and retina, are themselves round. And we see it all while standing on the Earth, the largest, roundest shape of all.