Happiness Is a Subtraction Problem

Maybe the secret to happiness is about less, not more

The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment. Not Seeking, not expecting, she is present, and can welcome all things.

— Lao-tzu

I’ve often thought that the happiest people I know don’t seem to try all that hard to be happy. They don’t read self-help books. They don’t talk about happiness all that often, nor do they seem to spend much time thinking about it. And they typically don’t give out lots of advice about how to be happy.

One explanation for this is that chronically happy people don’t try to be happy because they already are happy and don’t need to try. After all, if you don’t feel like you need much help, why would you spend your time reading self-help?

Obviously there’s something to this. There are many layers of privilege that make it more likely that some will feel happy while others won’t. It’s hard to feel consistently happy when you’re worried about making rent each month or you feel trapped in an abusive relationship.

On the other hand, it’s comparatively easy to feel consistently happy when you were born into loving and compassionate parents, inherited excellent genes, and had access to high-quality education, for example.

Still, there’s something about those unflappably happy people that doesn’t quite add up. Luck or privilege may explain some or even much of their happiness, but it does seem like they do things a little differently than the rest of us—even if they can’t themselves articulate it.

The negative way

After quite a bit of time observing and trying to think carefully about these chronically happy people, here’s what I think makes the difference:

Happy people have a knack for avoiding things that make them unhappy.

For example, most happy people I know don’t spend much time worrying about future calamities or ruminating on past misfortunes. That doesn’t mean they’re naive. In fact, they often spend a fair amount of time thinking about troubling things. But they seem especially skilled at knowing when negative thinking stops being productive and are able to shift their attention onto something that is.

Happy people also seem especially good at accurately assessing costs and benefits and being willing to leave a pretty big benefit on the table if there’s too much cost that goes along with it.

This is a Pullquote-custom. It’s unwise to put blind faith in much of anything your mind throws at you.

For example, imagine two possible vacations: One is an epic trip to some exotic destination; the other is a quiet weekend getaway at a little fishing village an hour away on the coast.

No doubt the exotic trip halfway across the globe would be more fun. But if it also includes a tremendous amount of stress—financial cost, jet lag, travel mix-ups, using up all your vacation time for the year, the mountain of catch up work to do when you get back to the office, etc.—maybe the net happiness gain favors the weekend getaway?

What if the ‘secret’ happy people know is that happiness has more to do with minimizing downsides than maximizing upsides?

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that there would be an asymmetry in the pursuit of happiness that favors the minimization of negatives over the maximizing of positives.

If survival was the historically dominant instinct for our species, an evolved negativity bias would seem natural. That is, when your hunter-gatherer ancestor stumbled on a new type of mushroom, a reasonable decision would be to forego eating the mushroom since not dying is far more valuable than the few brief moments of potentially mind-blowing pleasure that might come from a new flavor of mushroom.

Subtracting your way into happiness

This is all conjecture, of course. And the optimal strategy for attaining happiness probably depends a great deal on how you define happiness in the first place.

I’ve heard people say, for example, that they’re only truly happy when they’re passionately wrapped up in an exciting project. Others have described their vision of happiness as a general feeling of connectedness and unity with other people and the world.

As for me, I think of happiness as something closer to contentment or peace of mind. And while I enjoy feeling excited and joyful from time to time, those states of peak pleasure don’t seem particularly desirable as baseline moods. Ever been around one of those people who’s excited all the time? I find it exhausting.

Maybe it’s boring, but for me happiness is what’s leftover when I subtract the negative experiences in my life from the positives, as I’d rather be consistently +5 than erratically alternating between -40s and +55s.

23 Comments

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Bravo, Nick! Another well thought out & written essay. Your logic is brilliant in its simplicity.
I’m a happy person. Your definition works for me. I love 1+1 math!

Ha! Thanks, Julie. The simplicity of my math skills probably explains why I ended up a psychologist rather than an engineer 🙂

Dear Nick
I do like your writing style and logical way of looking at things. Certainly what you say applies to me (a state of contentedness) and a subtraction of the negatives from the positives. I agree that I find those who are always needing excitement tiring.
Thanks for that

But there is contentment in resolving the negative within oneself, instead of burying it or ignoring it. Why else do I have a mind and memory? Why else experiences if not to learn from them, learn about life, about others, but especially about myself in terms of what I keep in my mind. It seems to me that happiness is being like a tree, rooted but ready to bend when necessary and enjoying the storm that bends you.

Absolutely, we can’t avoid all the negatives in life and there’s often much to be gleaned from them. But on average I’d still prefer to experience fewer of them if possible!

Thank you Nick. I’m with you about the peace of mind. Fortunately you know this now. It took me a long time to finally get it. Contentment with moments of happiness.

There is something to this, of course. But is it in tension with the idea of not letting negative emotions like anxiety get in the way of a values driven life? Sometimes for me long-term happiness means avoiding avoidance and pushing myself out of the comfort zone.

Some of the happiest people I have met in my life face or faced great adversity, whether that is poverty, disability, or other issues.

For those of us who have so much, it is very important to appreciate the simple things in life like the joy of nature, being present, and the kindness of others.

Thank you for this article, I live my life that way and I often get criticized and called selfish because of that but truly, this is one of the secrets of happiness. It’s also learning to choose yourself and know your limits. Doing things for yourself and for what really matters. 🙂

Thanks for writing this Nick! I feel like happy people aren’t as strategic about happiness itself (but probably are about day-to-day life). Who knows.

I wonder if it’s simply not having expectations about how reality should me. I used to brush off this answer just because it didn’t jive with me. But I’m starting to realize that as I remove my own prerequisites for happiness, I’m more at peace.

Asking, “Is it important to me that I be unhappy until this goes my way?” helps me.

Nice points, Michael. Definitely agree that happy are probably not often as strategic or explicit as this and have just worked out a way of living that gets them to their desired outcome. But it can be useful to abstract the principles.

And totally agree on the expectations, part!

Lovely essay Nick. Thank you. My thought is to take things as they come, on a day to day basis and evaluate life as such. Often I would say my life has ‘some lows but much higher highs’. Looking at situations in a positive angle is hard in many situations (war, extreme poverty, grieving for a loved one…) but for many of us, building gratitude for one’s’ blessings can help one find peace and ultimately happiness.

Thanks for your insightful article.
Happiness also comes, not from ignoring the negatives,but doing something about it if i can.

I agree Nick; I visited Denmark a few years ago about the time that there was a lot of press about it being the happiest country in the world. I expected to see a lot of ebullient people but it was quite the opposite, almost staid people

I realized that Denmark most likely was granted that status by maintaining a slightly above average baseline of happiness without wild swings into positive or negative territory, thereby having a higher long-term total.

FWIW, it was a sort of working holiday and the sense of happiness/accomplishment was much longer lasting than if we had gone to a party resort and binged for a week or so 🙂

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