An Equation for Happiness (and a 4th of July Seder)

As many of you know, I have made the study of “happiness” one of my life’s pursuits. When I started on that journey many years ago, my preoccupation with the subject was often dismissed as trivial. Now it’s fashionable, the hot new thing.  Academic disciplines have sprung up devoted to the subject.

But for all the books and Ph.D. theses, I’d like to think that very few approach the topic quite like I’ve tried to.

Today we released a new course at Prager University: “The Happiness Equation.”  In it, I examine one way in which we make ourselves unhappy – namely, by comparing the reality of our life to an image of what he thought it might be.   I’ve even gone so far as to distill the problem down to a mathematical formula!

Unhappiness = Image – Reality

Watch here to see what I mean by this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bYvmjdqpT7Y

Like all our courses, but especially those in our Life Studies Department, this one can change your life for the better; if not yours, then someone you know.

Which brings me to my second point: happiness is contagious and needs to be spread to others. For example, part of the reason so many Americans don’t realize how good they have it in this country is because too many of us who appreciate it don’t instill that same grateful attitude in the younger generations.  Even on the 4th of July, one of my favorite holidays, most people never stop to reflect on what the day means or how such a free and prosperous and decent society was established and sustained for so long. 

Well, we’ve got something to help change that! 

Last year I wrote a piece in National Review describing my idea for a “4th of July Seder“, an annual re-declaration of the ideas and values that have typified the American experience since its inception. You can click here to learn more about it and even get yourself a “4th of July Declaration” kit to use at your family’s BBQ next month.

I’d love to hear from my Ricochet friends what you think!

  1. Blue State Curmudgeon

    Dennis, you hit the nail on the head !  I had an absolute epiphany when I visited a third world country for the first time, in this case Mexico.  My wife and I drove through several areas of the country, many of which were extremely underdeveloped.  We saw villages with dirt roads and burros that could have been from centuries in the past.  With all that poverty what we expected to see lots of and didn’t was …unhappiness.  An American living in one of those villages would have been miserable because we equate happiness with wealth.  The people living there didn’t seem resigned, they seemed content.  They were grateful for what they did have and didn’t seem to resent anyone who had more than them.    Thanks for reminding me of what’s really important.

  2. Mel Foil

    One of the things that I like about Catholicism (more in theory than in practice) is that the ultimate goal–holiness–doesn’t cost anything. Not money anyway. It costs you friends sometimes, but not money.

  3. Arahant

    Thanks, Dennis.  I shared it with some friends.

  4. Arahant

    KC, I think that last question about Jesus, the Pharisee, and the supplicant would be a thread by itself.

  5. Hang On

    So what’s so bad about unhappiness? Without unhappiness, it is likely nothing would ever get any better.

  6. David Williamson
    Dennis Prager: 

    Unhappiness = Image – Reality

    Mr Obama must be really, really, unhappy.

  7. R.J. Moeller
    Hang On: So what’s so bad about unhappiness? Without unhappiness, it is likely nothing would ever get any better. · 2 minutes ago

    Dennis is speaking here of pervasive and persistent discontent.  A morbid obsession with some perceived better life that you could/should be having.  The kind of person you’re talking about…who “gets things done”…is NOT sitting around feeling sorry for themselves. They are do-ers, and do-ers are not complainers and idlers.  It’s possibly a subtle distinction, but an important one. We all know people who are unhappy and stay that way because they dwell on things out of their control. Then there are those who are grateful for each day and motivated to make a better life for themselves and their kids.

    Dennis is talking here about attitude. Not the internal drive that motivates us to better things.

  8. Leporello

    In this life,

    One thing counts,

    In the bank,

    Large amounts.

    I’m afraid these doesn’t grow on trees,

    You’ve got to pick a pocket or two…

    - Fagin (Chief Thief, and Perennial Political Head of the Left)

  9. KC Mulville
    R.J. Moeller

    Dennis is speaking here of pervasive and persistent discontent. 

    Well, that’s a psychological defect that no video is going to change. 

    This is a video meant for everyone (I assume) and so we have to appraise it in that light. Why criticize it? Because he asked us to, and so let’s do it constructively.

    In that light, I think that HangOn’s point is well taken. There’s a difference between [grasping bitterly at a failed self-image] and [an honest appreciation of our failures]. In both cases, we have  a gap between what we are and what we want to be; but one is self-destructive and the other is healthy. So, logically, if contemplating that gap is unhealthy in one circumstance but healthy in another … then we can’t really pin the blame on the gap, can we?

    A healthy person incorporates the gap between image and reality into a deeper understanding of himself … and it’s that deeper understanding that makes the difference. 

    Frankly, I’m a fan of Prager’s, and I listen when I can … so I presume he’s addressed this elsewhere. Would be interested in that conversation.

  10. Tommy De Seno
    C

    The reasoning here is elegant, Dennis.  The simplicity bespeaks the elegance. 

    Very well done.

    You may actually help me come to grips with the fact that I look more like Super Mario’s stunt double than Robert Redford.

  11. Instugator
    Tommy De Seno: The reasoning here is elegant, Dennis.  The simplicity bespeaks the elegance. 

    Very well done.

    You may actually help me come to grips with the fact that I look more like Super Mario’s stunt double than Robert Redford. · 45 minutes ago

    The ‘stache actually reminds me of Saddam.

  12. Mark Wilson
    David Williamson

    Dennis Prager: 

    Unhappiness = Image – Reality

    Mr Obama must be really, really, unhappy. · 3 hours ago

    As a control systems engineer who makes a living by computing and reducing “error” (the difference between a desired quantity and a measurement), and in light of the point about Mr. Obama, I would humbly like to propose a change to the Prager Happiness Equation, as follows:

    Unhappiness = Image – PerceivedReality

    where PerceivedReality = Reality + PerceptionBias

    This accounts for people with a large disconnect between reality and their worldview, who either don’t know how good they have it, or who are oblivious to their own problems.

  13. drlorentz

    I liked the gratitude theme in a couple of your courses. This idea could use wider dissemination. It would probably be counter-intuitive for most people at first, but they would warm to it once they understood it.

    Bravo.

  14. Mel Foil

    KC,

    I’m guessing that Dennis is talking about the happy giver–happy more from a spirit of gratitude and love than from some personal victory.

  15. Pseudodionysius

    Any commentary a pseudonymous commenter using an EJHill avatar would make is by definition ironic.

  16. Guruforhire

    I like to think that happiness is a positive change vector.

  17. Virshu

    I am sure many Ricochetians listened to Dennis at one time or another; so it may come as obvious – but since nobody (including Dennis himself) mentioned it, let me clarify :)

    Image means Utopian, or Ideal image of what reality could be if everything would be the way one wants it to be. A wolf would sleep with a lamb; Jews and Arabs would hug the trees together; and from each according to his ability to each according to his need!

    And the reality is that the world is imperfect, people sin, and economy resembles Brownian motion, and not the orderly five-year plans hatched by the smartest PhD’s and Nobel Prize winners in economics.

    That difference is what leads to unhappiness…

  18. Mark Wilson
    Hang On: So what’s so bad about unhappiness? Without unhappiness, it is likely nothing would ever get any better. · 5 hours ago

    We discussed a similar idea last fall on a Claire Berlinski thread titled What if This is the Best it Gets?.  It was proposed that if immortality became widely available, all subsequent advancements would be trivial by comparison.  It was also predicted that in such a case, most technological and societal progress would cease because of widespread complacency.

  19. KC Mulville

    We obviously have a lot of definition-”handshaking” before we can discuss happiness. So, some questions …

    • Is happiness the highest virtue? (If there are higher virtues, then isn’t happiness just a psychological luxury?)

    • Is happiness understood as our emotional reaction to the world? Or to ourselves? Dennis Prager’s video seems to understand happiness as an emotional reaction, but I’ll (pardon the pun) happily be corrected on this point.

    I’ve been googling “Dennis Prager happiness” for an hour or so, and I can’t find a definition. I can find a list of things happy people do, or what happiness requires, or what happiness isn’t, but I can’t find any precise statement about what happiness is. 

    Jesus once pointed out a Pharisee who was very happy with himself, then pointed out a man standing in the back, humbly pleading that God have mercy on him, a sinner. Jesus praised the humble sinner, but didn’t think much of the happy Pharisee. What do we make of that? (Yes, I know that Jesus isn’t everyone’s final authority, but his teachings are at the core of our culture … and this is one of his teachings.)

  20. Dennis Prager
    C
    Blue State Curmudgeon: An American living in one of those villages would have been miserable because we equate happiness with wealth.  The people living there didn’t seem resigned, they seemed content.  They were grateful for what they did have and didn’t seem to resent anyone who had more than them.    Thanks for reminding me of what’s really important. · 22 hours ago

    Blue State, you are a wise man. Thanks for sharing this.