Site icon

The Mathematics of Happiness

Over on Huffington Post, a recent piece got a lot of attention–at least, if the number of times it came up on my Facebook feed is any indication. The piece, originally posted at wait but why, titled “Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy,” analyzes a very simple idea:

The members of Generation Y (defined as people born anytime from the 1970s to the 1990s)–or at least a subset of them–are not happy.


They’re “GYPSYs”: Generation Y Protagonists & Special Yuppies. They are “a unique brand of yuppie, one who thinks they are the main character of a very special story.”

Of course, there are oodles of problems with this idea.

The main problem with this is the following simple formula, highlighted in bright, vivid colors early in the post:

GYPSYS, the author suggests, are unhappy because their expectations are unreasonable and cannot match with reality. Their expectations, in turn, are too high because they were raised by boomers, people who were obsessed with economic security and what they considered practicality… but because their parents were like that, they lived with a kind of cushion shielding them from the fear of poverty.

Moreover, their parents, despite having relatively low expectations, but enjoyed a lot more success and prosperity than they actually expected, raised their kids with a sense of optimism, a sense of hope, but also absent the sense of happiness being the reward for many years of hard work–happiness being the outcome, rather than a constituent element of the journey.

As a result, GYPSYs are:

And so, young people went out and majored in film studies, or English lit, or art history, and graduated believing the world would throw jobs at them; the fact that it didn’t–the fact that their expectations were disconnected from reality–has stuck in their craw, leaving them bitter at their failure to instantly succeed, and ill-equipped for the long-run struggle required to get to the point where they can succeed.

So, GYPSYs are unhappy.

(And hey, ethnic term/slur becomes derogatory demographic term. Who’s the asshole in the back, clapping?)

We could start by noting that this person has come up with a term to describe that unsconsciously entitled, stupid part of the Generation Y, without coming up with a similar term for GenX or Baby Boomer morons–because, after all, morons exist in every generation.

Also, there are some key changes that have happened in America (and Canada! and, surely, other places!) over the last thirty to fifty years, that the article ignores: shifts in the job market and the rise in women’s labor market participation, the rising cost of education, the proliferation of unpaid labour (in the form of endless internships), declining starting wages in starting positions (when you adjust for inflation), and the messed-up economy in general.

But I don’t really want to talk about all that. What I want to talk about is the colorful equation I quoted, way up near the top of this post:

Let’s think about that. When you’re doing math, it’s important to define your terms, so:

Happiness: the reportage of subjective happiness, or other demonstrably measurable ratings of happiness, by a person or group of people

Reality: the way things are in the world

Expectations: the expectations of an individual or group of individuals

Happiness is probably the factor most people will peg as the hardest to define, the most elusive. In a sense, the equations begs the question of the article; it may be that it’s not the disconnect between expectations and reality that makes GYPSYs unhappy, so much as the definition of happiness they’ve accepted as received from their society.

Expectations, of course, are equally hard to nail down. Different individuals have different expectations, but we ought to be able to talk about groups of people and a sense of general expectations: one generation is optimistic, another pessimistic.

Reality, then, looks like the constant in this equation, the one factor we know. Reality, after all, is fixed, stable, it’s the thing we see when we walk out our doors, right? Reality is the thing we need to accept, if we want to be happy, right?

Of course, this reasoning is flawed: Reality isn’t fixed, isn’t eternal. That is an utter fiction. Nor is reality “the best of all possible worlds.” Hell, if you actually go and check out how that became a household expression, you’ll find that the character who was saying it was basically a moron, and the author using him to mocking German philosopher whose ideas he thought were ridiculous.

Some people are eager to argue that the status quo is the best we can hope for, and that any big changes we try risk making things generally worse. The people who argue this, though, are almost always those who either benefit from the status quo, or think  they do… or those who truly fear that big changes will lead to trouble. (It’s well-understood that fear begets more conservative attitudes: not all conservatives are fearful, but most fearful people are conservatives.)

But even if we did grant the idea that this is the best of all possible worlds–if we accepted, for the sake of argument, that for better or worse things are about as good as they’ll get–we would still have problems. That’s because it’s ridiculous to suggest that adjusting one’s Expectations to fit Reality will lead to Happiness.

Take, for example, one of the realities that women live with–these statistics are American, and gleaned from Wikipedia:

The logic of the equation above suggests that all that is needed for women to be Happy under these circumstances, is to lower their Expectations to conform with Reality. To, in other words, accept that they have a fairly high chance of experiencing rape, and should it occur, they have very little chance of anyone with any power doing anything about it, while their assailant escapes with no repercussions. Accept Reality, and be Happy, ladies.


Now, someone might argue that if women’s Expectations took Reality into account, they could prepare for the worst, and protect themselves, and avoid it. This is true… except, that most women already do expect bad things, and do take precautions to avoid them. Yes, yes, some don’t; we’ve all had friends who took unnecessary risks but we’ve also all had plenty friends who were reconciled to the idea of not walking out to their car alone in the middle of the night, who carry pepperspray, who take self-defense courses, who prepare for the worst.

And you know what? Those women who prepare themselves accordingly? They aren’t necessarily happier. Let’s ignore the strain of constantly having constrain their movement and worry about whether Reality is going to force itself onto them; being prepared doesn’t actually make them Happy. Some of them still get assaulted, and no woman I know is actually “happy” with things as they are.

So this is a bit like telling African-Americans that if they just lower their expectations to the level where what happened to Trayvon Martin could happen to them, and stop hoping for better, they’d be happy. Or, you know, like telling gay people, “Hey, look, if you could just make peace with the fact that a chunk of our society hates you, thinks you should be banned from legal spousal status, and subject to random vigilante violance, you’d all be a lot happier.” Or telling a ghetto kid, “Look, you’re probably trapped in a cycle of poverty for life, and have very few real options for changing that, and plenty of disadvantages stacked against you,” and expecting them to be overtaken by glee once their spirit is finally crushed. That is how idiotic this is.

The argument one can be Happy if one just adjusts one’s Expectations to Reality is a fantasy: most people have a bone to pick with that reality, and can present very good reasons why it needs to change. And that’s not even to get into what Happiness means. I’ll save that for another time. For now, I think we can conclude that the mathematics of happiness is much more complex than was suggested in that article.

This equation:

… is deceptive because it’s not mathematics: it’s a political position–an explicitly conservative one–founded on the supposedly unchangeable nature of “Reality.” Except, of course, we all know that the one thing that is inevitable is change.

One more thing: I say that this equation is “explicitly conservative” in its assumptions, and it is; but that’s not transparently obvious to most liberals. The reasons for that are complex, and deserve their own post.

But since we’re bandying around false-equations based on political assumptions, let’s go with one that is aggressively contrary to the one I’ve been discussing:

Which is to say: people aren’t happy when they accept things as they are: they’re happy when they fight for change, to the degree necessary to actually overcome resistance and make the world a better place. Here, Reality is a function of Change (a function of Expectations) minus Resistance, multiplied by (Effective) Action, specifically action required to bring about the changes required.

And no, Occupy was not Effective Action, unfortunately for all of us, though perhaps some positive effects may be made visible in the long run. Maybe.

As for defining Happiness, well… that’s a discussion for another time, but you could do worse than to watch Adam Curtis’s The Century of the Self if you want a head start on that:
Exit mobile version