Simple formula for happiness

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This article by Dr Piotr Wozniak is part of SuperMemo Guru series on memory, learning, creativity, and problem solving.

Introduction

My formula for happiness is very simple. It does not mean it can quickly transform unhappy societies. The formula is simple to understand, but it may be hard to implement due to its conflicts with modern lifestyle. Not everyone can ditch the alarm clock or turn off their phone.

My formula is dedicated primarily for those who feel a bit unhappy. However, it may also be useful for those who are happy, but would gladly increase their productivity without a dip in the mood.

I would like to show the value of pain in achieving a happy mind. Learning and creativity are essential too. Additionally, everyone knows that sleep is vital, but not everyone realizes the power of the circadian rhythm. Simple tricks can magnify the power of sleep, learning, and exercise.

Here are the main steps in my formula:

  • begin the day at a good baseline of contentment (e.g. correct circadian frame is important)
  • build up small rewards (learning, creativity, problem solving, productivity, etc.)
  • cumulate trouble into a big blow (e.g. expose to a series of uncertainties all at once)
  • use pain to compensate for bad news
  • use sleep to reset to the baseline (e.g. delaying sleep may dramatically improve its quality)

I composed the formula around my own experience. I realize it may be hard to implement for those who are not perfectly healthy. Even a minor infection can put a spanner in the works, let alone a chronic health problem. I based the formula on what I know about the brain. The formula does not fully align with the usual message from the happiness gurus, but I can vouch for it. If it does not work for you, let me know. Perhaps I failed to mention an important component or condition.

Happiness is the default

If you look at a young cat or a child, you will notice a great deal of joy. This is the baseline of contentment for the brain. We are born happy. Contentment drives behaviors and is good for survival. This is why it is an evolutionary default. If happiness is the default, you may wonder why so many people declare themselves unhappy in life. What makes people unhappy or pessimistic is the systematic injury to the reward system incurred as a result of the way we engineered our society. It is the limits on freedom that are most injurious. Some of those limits are imposed by the hierarchy of value that keeps conditioning the mind in ways that favor low levels of happiness.

A healthy baseline of contentment can be enhanced with factors that limit the noise your brain receives from the external pressure. Those stabilization factor are:

To immerse yourself in happy productivity, you cannot be bothered by unresolved existential questions, or anything you must do in a hurry. Your achievement may be high, but it best comes spontaneously. Your goals may be lofty, but they are best achieved via a set of guidance rules that you run automatically. Stoic philosophy makes sure you see minor setbacks in the perspective of lifetime goals. It is possible to condition the mind to care little about outcomes, and then celebrate success with triple joy.

Good sleep

It is almost impossible to live a happy life without good sleep. Quality of sleep might be the most important single factor determining the mood in the long run. A refreshed brain can handle bad news that would otherwise make you spiral into depression. We are all born with basic control systems needed for achieving sleep that is perfectly refreshing. And still, we usually manage to mess it up by the time of puberty. I wrote a whole book about good sleep (see: Science of sleep), and we all know that achieving it in modern world is no simple thing.

After a good night of sleep, a healthy individual should wake up in a reasonably happy frame of mind. If this is not the case, we already know that something may require long term intervention. If you wake up unhappy on a regular basis, the damage may go deep. In simplest terms, you need to build your brain back up, recover your learn drive, your creativity, your passion for life. This is possible, but it may take months or years of careful self-therapy. The brain is like a synaptic garden: it grows a lot of connections with pleasure, but is also vulnerable to stressors, of which bad sleep is just one of many.

Cumulate rewards

If you wake up in a reasonably contented frame of mind, you must begin the day with a build up of rewards that will provide the springboard for the rest of the day, and ensure that you keep growing your brain garden towards long-term strength.

That early period in the day, may set the frame of your mind, and must be protected from external interference! This is already hard as most people start the day from sending kids to school, commuting, or planning the day at work. Dozens of phone calls, messages, uninvited conversations, can bombard the brain with tiny negative messages: "you must", "you cannot", "you did X wrong", "you disappointed Y", etc. This interference gradually destroys the brain's self-defenses. Only alpha males and Trump-like personalities can thrive in this chaos. For most people, esp. those who are a bit more sensitive, or more creative, or less extrovert, the protected morning is essential.

The main tools for healthy reward are: new learning, creativity, problem solving, or other forms of productivity. If you read a book, listen to a lecture, or use more advanced tools like incremental reading, you will quickly discover that (1) your mind drifts away from troubles of the day, and (2) mild reward of learning sets you into a high gear on the contentment scale. This is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls "flow". If you focus on learning things that may contribute to solving your problem, the reward may even get better. In a healthy brain, new learning is always rewarding, even if you learn about otherwise gloomy things, e.g. health problems.

Productivity might be even better than learning. Small accomplishments at work, small jobs, small successes, anything that makes you make a step forward. This should be highly rewarding and protect you psychologically from setbacks that you may want to expose yourself later in the day.

If you are early on your journey to a satisfactory life, those incremental rewards may not come easy. When you are fresh from school, you may hate learning. Problems may seem too hard to solve. You need to gradually grow your brain garden to see that things that are unpleasant today, may be the greatest source of joy in the future.

Invite the blow

After some peaceful rewarding time, you are in your best circadian frame to tackle challenges, uncertainty, stress, conflict, frog jobs, etc. Your brain may already be slowing down intellectually, and an injection of adrenaline or cortisol may be welcome.

If you combine all unhappy factors into one big lump, you can smash it through on adrenaline alone. Small uncertainties result in the phenomenon called kindling. They can give you what I call "jittery amygdala" that will be more sensitive to stressors, and more ready to send negative signals that may send a more sensitive individual into a chain reaction that leads to depression.

Instead of being nagged for hours by little things, it is better to take on a big bull, take on the fight, suffer injuries, bleed, make it all violent, but make it end fast with a resolution: win or lose. This way you can convert chronic stress into acute stress, which may even turn into eustress. After a boxing fight, there is a brief period of elation. While chronic stress is a notorious brain destroyer that undermines your defenses, acute stress may turn out healthy, esp. if it leads to a resolution of one of your problems.

As an example, imagine you got a nasty boss, who cannot appreciate your work. You got some important message to pass that bugs you for days, weeks, or months. Instead, of wasting your precious morning on ruminating the problem, charge your batteries with pleasurable learning (e.g. about being assertive) and then schedule that big confrontation. If you have a plan, you can be polite, smiling, and resolute. You can confront the boss, and get if off your chest: sink or swim.

A big blow with a resolution of a problem is a step forward in life. Vacillating for weeks is bad for the brain, and awful for your prospects for a happy life. The formula for less stress is to (1) encapsulate stressors as eustress, (2) add stressors up as acute stress, and (3) prevent acute stress from becoming chronic stress by deploying stress valves.

Naturally, if you do not need to receive blows, because you happen to have a good day, so much the better. Keep building up strength for the day when you need it.

Cure pain with pain

Everyone should exercise every day. This is an evolutionary imprint on our physiology that we cannot run away from. Exercise is great for a happy mind. It is great for the brain. It is great for sleep. It is the best medicine that has ever been invented.

Exercise that causes pain is also a great way to wipe all worries, or wipe out the consequences of the acute mental pain or stress you might have suffered while inviting the blow (see previous section).

A great number of people hate exercise, while not being aware that the pain caused by exercise is the great remedy for the pain caused by life. I am sure that it is very difficult to be happy without exercise. For some older people, work in the garden or even walking may be an exercise enough. However, if you are below fifty, and you hate jogging, you have a very clear target to improve your overall level of happiness: start running! Start from 30 meters everyday. Once you get to like the rhythm and the impact, move to 40 meters, and so on (see: Micro-rules of productivity). If you get to 1 kilometer in one year, you will have 30-200 kilometers on your odometer already. This will make you proud and help you start a habit that will last a lifetime. Many of my friends started exercising after 40 and the later they start, the more amazed they are about what they have been missing!

If you suffer a great deal of unavoidable stress at work, you need to find good sources of pain. My favorite forms of torture are winter swimming, and barefoot marathon. Those can even be combined into long-distance winter barefoot running in water. There is a very short path from pain to euphoria. The bigger the pain, the bigger the elation. If you harness that magic, you can wipe out stress, minor worries, anxiety, inhibitions, and more. Your creativity will soar to levels you have never seen before. This is a healthy version of legal heroin with an incredible boost for the brain. I use the example of heroin because it is an analog of natural painkillers released by the brain (endorphins). The sleep that follows is pure coma. If you are lucky to hit the hormonal jackpot, the next day is the sunniest imaginable, even if it rains. Do I sound like I was high at the moment of writing? Well, I tried barefoot running in water yesterday (Feb 17, 2019). My words come in the wake of that elation.

Slowly, you need to find your own way. It may take years of practice to achieve the peak.

My belief in the power of pain is so profound that I like to joke that I found a perfect cure for depression: ask a patient to swim out into the sea in winter with a simple command: do not return until you are sure you have been cured!. The idea is to generate survival signals that would overwhelm the negative activation that sustains the depressed mood. This cure is hermetic because it is hardly possible to imagine a brain in which the program of survival would succumb to any other forms of activation. The only problem is that a depressed patient would never swim out voluntarily. He would literally need to be tossed into frigid waters with informed consent. I imagine though that passive electroconvulsive therapy would be less terrifying for most people even though its effects have little to do with natural behavioral programs preserved in the brain.

Sleep reset

If you start your day on a happy note, build up contentment incrementally with high productivity, accomplish things with a dose of painful fight, and wipe out the negatives with pain, you may end up pretty tired by the end of the day. The more tired you are, the better the job done! You will gradually lose the ability to respond to happy signals. Hopefully your anxieties and worries will not be able to pierce through either. However, a major stressor can still wake you up and ruin your night. The last 5-8 hours of the day, should be protected from stress as well. You should be in touch only with people who you love, or be alone. Only those who never disrupt your peace should have access. It is nice to have at least one such person for support. Your phone is off. Your mail is off. You do not turn on TV channels that give you the jitters. Focus on extracting a bit of positivity from those slow hours of down time. Mild exercise, reading, family time, or a movie. I am a night owl. By the time of my downtime, all the world seems to be asleep. I like to shuffle around, and listen to lectures in a dark room. This is fun and education. It provides some inspirational material for the next day. There is no room for worry. Just slowly winding down in darkness until the body naturally tells you "enough walking, time for sleep".

Creative vacation

I promote the idea that I call "creative vacation", which I have been practicing for 25 years now on a regular basis (2-3 times per year). Imagine you combine a prolonged vacation with some job that you really love. This is better than vacation, because you can extend it into weeks or months without ever feeling your life is passing by without being productive. I know that only a fraction of society can afford this type of vacation. It applies only to a subset of creative professions. However, you need to try it at least once, to be fully aware of what you might be missing. You could even sacrifice one of your "ordinary" vacations. My favorite projects are related to research, computing, and writing. This is my best kind of creative "flow".

On creative vacation, you are entirely separated form the rest of the world. No phone. No e-mail. This is a blessing for the appreciation of other people. We are social beasts and isolation becomes painful in the long run. Your friends and family should not even know where you are! However, this may be important only in your first attempts. Overtime, everyone around will develop a habit of not disrupting your "vacation", so you may stay with your family, or even at home as long as your isolation is complete, and perfectly respected by everyone. On occasion you may check the news. Or meet some people you like, just to retain your social sanity. Surfing the web is also ok if this is part of your work.

During creative vacation, you do not need to employ pain to wipe out the effect of stress. But I love to employ pain to generate creative euphoria anyway. In other words, I personally do not remove pain from the equation. If you take it easy, it might work equally well.

Physiology of happiness

The roots of happiness can be found in the reward system in the brain. There are many forms of transient reward, e.g. food. However, happiness requires long-term sustainable reward. Great pleasure can be extracted from love. This can be love of people, animals, or nature. This type of pleasure is long-lasting and sustainable, however, it may be insufficient. You cannot live on love alone. At some point you may need to fill in that stomach, which usually involves labor, which isn't always rewarding. My formula is based on happiness derived from high productivity. Physical labor can be a source of great pleasure, and so can cognitive work. Learning, creativity and problem solving are probably the best forms of sustainable long-term intense reward. They can be used as tools to make almost anyone happy. However, high cognitive productivity requires the right type of brain. This is a brain rich in newly active connections. In other words, the more you learn, the more voracious your brain becomes. If you keep learning and staying creative for months and years, chances are, your levels of contentment will keep increasing. You need to distinguish between fast thinking and creative novelty (see: Knowledge and creativity). Prolific problem solving does not need to be rewarding if it is routine (see: How to solve any problem?). You need to see novelty. It is the surprisal that is rewarding (see: Pleasure of learning).

If you are fresh from school, and still not convinced my words are true, you need to begin your journey with lifelong learning. In 1983, I lazily started with just a page of a book per day. It was hard for me to economize time for more. It was hard for me to find energy for more. But that was a good start and I kept building up from that point. I was lucky enough to be a reasonably free and happy young man, so starting slow was not a problem. If you are a voracious reader, and you still cannot find peace in life, consider other factors in my formula: protection, pain, sleep, etc.

Rich and fresh connectivity in the brain is needed to reap a good reward from cognitive productivity

Mathematics of happiness

The mathematical model of reward and penalty can be made relatively simple if we look for maximizing contentment.

The quest for the happiness pill is futile as the entire human behavior is driven by reward and penalty. However, a pill that raises overall contentment would probably be welcome, and my formula is a non-pharmacological attempt to increase the average by using a simple model.

As it is often the case in the function of the brain, contentment is a resultant of competing processes based on the activation of specific concepts in mind. By affecting activations, we can change the level of contentment, and this process can be made largely independent of environmental influences. In other words, it is possible to shield the contentment from external forces. This is however possible only in a well-armed brain, and with a realization that even the most powerful shield can be pierced (e.g. with a death of a loved one).

Happy and negative signals compete in the brain. They compete for salience, persistence, memory, etc. While enjoying happy productivity, we may be tipped into a negative mood by the news of sickness in family, and then tipped into the survival mode by an emergency (e.g. fire in the neighborhood).

If activations result in a chain reaction, we may end up with mental disorders. In case of a runaway of unhappy signals, we may get into a depressive state, or conversely end up in a state of mania. Naturally, to see brain activations as just happy or unhappy is a gross simplification, however, I commit that for the sake focusing on contentment with the understanding that there is a wider range of emotions possible. For example a happy mind may be colored with aggression, love, excitement of eustress, etc.

A runway emotional chain reaction is based on a positive feedback. If many negative events accumulate at the same time, they may trigger a chain reaction that will lead to a depression. That chain reaction will depend on a person's sensitivity and the neurohormonal status. That status can be dependent on circadian factors, current level of contentment, and the overall brain health. The latter we tend to associate with personality. We classify people as neurotic or optimistic. I believe in the power of learning and the claim that optimism is trainable and neuroticism is inducible (see: learned helplessness and learned optimism).

The trainability based on the cognitive engagement (flow) has the following components:

  • productivity/learning overwhelms the trailing "brain status" signaling (extinguishing negativity)
  • productivity/learning generates sustainable reward (building positivity)
  • productivity/learning improves the overall health of the brain in the long run (consolidating positivity in the long run)

That third component, lifelong positive learning is the most important and most lasting. Building new connections takes time, but once they get established, they can be used indefinitely. The new knowledge can be used as a weapon against previously encountered stressors. Forgetting can be employed selectively to boost the positive knowledge, while leaving the memory of stressor to their continual re-emergence.

True happiness in life is nothing else than a consistent contentment signal punctuated with occasional euphoria, and infrequent negative disruption with a quick return to the baseline.

At any given moment, the state of contentment is like a trailing average of the prior state and the impact of new signals. The valuation of arriving signals is based on surprisal. This means that the power of reward will depend on the expected reward. Hence the value of low expectations for the level of contentment. Analogously, negative valuation will also depend on the expected penalty. Hence the popular recommendation "expect the worst".

All formulas for happiness attempt to tinker with the model of reward. I recommend sustained productivity, which works by establishing highly rewarding activations that suppress all other forms of activity in the brain (the state of flow). Proponents of meditation insist that it is possible to observe one's own brain, observe the origin of a negative signal and prevent the propagation of the negative wave, which prevents negative associative valuation of co-existing activations. I may be wrong, but I see meditation as less effective by analogy to extinguishing fires (as in the flow) as opposed to keeping them at low kindle (as in meditation). When I suggest the employment of pain, I see it as a two pronged weapon in which a survival program takes over brain activations, while the release of painkiller hormones provides the soothing after-effect.

True happiness can be then achieved by the state of flow (for sustained reward in the absence of stressors), learning (for incremental buildup of positive knowledge), by acute stress (for counterbalancing major stressors), and sleep (which perpetuates the happy framework via neural optimization).

The formula is unlikely to work for everyone. The number of interfering factors is huge: prior knowledge, neurohormonal balance, exposure to stressors, health, skills, etc. A fragile brain is like a house of cards exposed to the storms of life. For a significant fraction of the population, modern lifestyle makes it hardly possible to build basic contentment, to effectively engage in a productive flow, to parry the blows or even to get a good night of sleep. No wonder then that mental disease is rampant, and unhappiness declared often.

Positive feedback

Decades ago, I noticed a correlation: the best users of SuperMemo were those who simply loved learning. Today I wonder which way the causality goes. Is it that happy people love to learn, or those who learn a lot are the happiest. You guessed it: this is a chicken and egg problem. Learning and happiness are co-related. They form a loop of positive feedback which is the essence of my formula.

Note that my formula for happiness has parallels with my prior writing that all revolves around the circadian cycle. To learn more about my thinking see:

I suggest you retain a generally high baseline of contentment by staying fit, healthy, and cognitively vibrant. Respond to assault with counterassault. Keep a positive signal in the receptive circadian window. As a bonus, generate natural euphoria with the help of pain.

Happiness and learning provide a powerful cycle of positive feedback. Learning and creativity are the engines of a happy mind

What next?

If my formula is convincing, you need to be aware that it is not implementable overnight. Your will need to develop dozens of habits and micro-rules that will make it work for you. It is possible you will need to change your brain and your physiology. For example, align your circadian cycle to find optimum sleep, initiate massive learning to recover the inquisitive brain, adapt your physiology to make exercise pleasurable, etc. It is important to begin with small steps. I have already managed to excite people into injury (e.g. rushing into a marathon without preparation).

You will also need to condition people around you to respect your rules. Last but not least, never stop learning about how your brain works. My formula may turn out less universal than I believe. If you see I missed something essential, please let me know.

See also:



For more texts on memory, learning, sleep, creativity, and problem solving, see Super Memory Guru