The Happiness Formula: Part Three

Peter's picture

This is the third installment in our series on The Happiness Formula. In part one, I introduced the formula. Then, in part two we took a look at the first variable: S, our biological set point. Today, I'll be moving on to the second variable in The Happiness Formula, C, our life conditions, where we'll see that our happiness can be affected by several external factors, or conditions, in our lives. Happiness doesn't only come from within. Let's see why ...


Our life conditions are a combination of various things that we can and cannot change about our lives. Some examples of things that we can't change are race, sex, age or a disability. Some things that we can change include wealth, marital status, where we live, etc. In general, life conditions tend to remain constant over a long period of time and change relatively infrequently. Today we'll be looking at several conditions that we can change to see how they will help us to improve our overall well-being.


We've all heard the timeless saying, "Money can't buy happiness." For the most part, this is true. The primary reason that wealth and luxuries don't lead directly to a happier existence is due to our incredible ability to adapt to new situations. This knack for adaptation is certainly handy when we are dealing with hardship, since it softens the emotional distress we experience. Unfortunately, the adaptation works both ways and we also readily adapt to prosperity.

We judge our current well-being by comparing our present situation to our previous one. If we have a sudden increase in wealth, there is a short period during which we will feel extremely happy. Gradually, we forget what it felt like to have less money and the happiness wears off. We adapt. As far as our happiness goes, we end up right back where we started, only now we have a more expensive car to insure and a bigger house to heat.

We also adapt to lots of other things besides just money: possessions, climate, diet, wardrobe, etc. We can adapt to all sorts of things.

We Can't Always Adapt

As good as we are at adapting to our life conditions, there are a few conditions to which we don't easily adapt. Some of these conditions also have a significant impact on our happiness. By focusing our efforts on these adaptation-resistant, happiness-affecting conditions, by either seeking or avoiding them, we can have a long lasting effect on our overall level of happiness. Here they are:

  • Noise: We never full adapt to persistent, unwanted noise in our lives. This is especially true for noise that is variable and unpredictable in nature such as traffic noise or someone else's loud music. Noise interferes with our ability to concentrate and it also promotes higher levels of stress. So, it's worth working to remove sources of unwanted noise from your life.
  • Commuting: A long and traffic filled commute will have you more stressed while you are driving and it will leave you more stressed at either end of your commute. Even after many years of a long journey to and from work, we don't fully adapt. It's worth trying to give yourself a shorter, less stressful commute.
  • Lack of Control: Directly related to the first two items, a lack of control in your life will have a negative impact on your overall level of happiness. The feeling of helplessness and frustration that arises from a lack of control can wreak havoc with our emotional well-being. The interesting thing here is that you don't need to actually use the control you've got, you just have to know that you could use it. So, if you knew you could turn down the volume on your neighbour's music, you'd feel better than if you knew you couldn't, even if you didn't actually take advantage of your ability to control the volume by turning it down. As far as happiness is concerned, it pays to be in control.
  • Shame: If you are faced with something that you are ashamed of on a regular basis, your happiness will be negatively affected. Cosmetic surgery, for example, has been shown to have a beneficial effect on a person's happiness by correcting a physical trait which reduces a perceived source of shame. On average, people who have had a cosmetic procedure report an increase in their quality of life as well as a decrease in some mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, years after their cosmetic procedure. Being freed from a daily burden of shame can have a long term effect on well-being and self-confidence.
  • Relationships: This is a big one. The quality and number of personal relationships that you have has a very large impact on your overall well-being. Happier people tend to have more relationships and those relationships tend to be of higher quality. On the other side of the coin, we never adapt to interpersonal conflict. Having a relationship conflict with a spouse or with a co-worker is definitely going to have a damaging effect on your happiness, day in and day out. So, it is worth your while to work on building up a strong network of meaningful relationships and to nurture the relationships you already have.
  • Money: Whoa, money can't buy happiness! This is true but only partly true. Money is an important factor in our overall level of happiness when it brings us out of abject poverty. We never get used to a daily struggle to pay for the basics of life: food, shelter, clothing, etc. However, once you've got enough to cover the basics, money does little to directly increase our emotional well-being. Of course, if you use your money to help you work on the things we're covering here, it should help to bring you more happiness.

Happiness Comes From 'Without' Too

So there you have it. Happiness does not only come from within; it is also affected by several external conditions in our lives. By focusing on the external conditions that resist our ability to adapt, we can get more bang for our happiness buck. In the end, we'll end up with a set of life conditions that is most likely to lead us to a longer, happier existence.

In the fourth installment of The Happiness Formula series I'll be looking at V, our voluntary activities to see how they can contribute to our overall level of happiness. Until then!


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I think that fact that we

I think that fact that we adapt to things and just get used to them is one of the reasons so many people keep chasing happiness by buying more and more stuff. First you get that new BMW, it makes you happy for a little while, then you adapt so you need to get a boat to get that happy rush again. And it just goes on and on like that, in the continual pursuit of (temporary) happiness.

Peter's picture

That's right RetiredSyd,

That's right RetiredSyd, there's no doubt that we do feel a burst of satisfaction from a new purchase, but it is only temporary. To keep that satisfaction going, we need to keep getting more stuff. It really is a rat race when that happens! In order to achieve any sort of lasting happiness, we need to focus on the things to which we don't easily adapt.

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