The Happiness Equation

What Is Happiness

Achieving happiness can be elusive. It’s something that we all aspire to, yet often we don’t have a good handle on what it takes to get there. The good news is that happiness can be worked towards, and it all begins with the happiness equation.

The Happiness Equation

The happiness equation seeks to define true joy and how we can get there. Multiple definitions have been created, but the most popular is the following:

Happiness = Our Expectations - Our Reality

That’s to say that our happiness equals or exceeds the difference between the events we experience and how we expect life to be.

For example, if we’re on holiday and expect sunshine, but all we see is rain, we’re left disappointed. And the opposite is also true. If we’re expecting a week of cold weather, but instead, we’re gifted with sunshine, we’re left feeling elated.

So at the most basic level, amending our expectations of how we expect life to be can help improve our happiness.

But to go into more details, we’ll need a more nuanced definition for improving happiness. That’s where a psychologist called Martin Seligman comes in. Here’s his equation for authentic happiness:

Happiness = Our Head Start + Our Circumstances + The Things Under Our Control

Increasing each part of the equation leaves us with more significant and longer-lasting happiness. Here, we'll deep dive into each one.

Head Start

When it comes to happiness, some of us are genetically programmed to be happier. That’s right, you may be genetically wired to be very happy most of the time, come what may. So ultimately, we all have different starting points in the race for happiness because of our genes. But all is not lost, even if you're at the back of this line, because there other things under your influence.


Whilst we may not have control over our genetics, we sure have power over our circumstances. Generally, we have a choice over the job we’re in, the friends we keep and the activities we participate in during the day.

This isn’t always the case, and there may be constraints on things like our income and location. But, the good news is that our circumstances form the smallest part of the happiness equation, with a maximum of 15% influence. What makes up the bulk are the things in our voluntary control…

Voluntary Control

Here’s where you’re in control. In the pursuit of happiness, this is where you should apply your attention. There are three important categories within your control. They are your thoughts about the past, present and future. Yes, it really is as simple as that.

Improving Past Emotions

The past doesn't determine your future. Remembering this is an effective way of improving and letting go of past emotions. That’s to say, your past doesn’t define you. Instead, remind yourself that you have a sizeable amount of control in your life.

Another technique is to adopt an attitude of gratitude. This involves looking favourably at your achievements and recalling them often. A gratitude journal is a great way to help achieve this.

The final strategy is to practice forgiveness. Try to let go of any grudges or grievances towards others, but more importantly, yourself. Because it’s impossible to grow without letting go of any faults from the past.

Improving Future Thoughts

Over time, our brains can get into unhealthy habits. For example, repetitive negative thoughts about the future can make us think they’re real. These are known as automatic pessimistic thoughts.

The best strategy to look more positively at the future is to challenge these pessimistic thoughts whenever they appear. If you have a negative opinion about a future event, pick a fight with it, and tell it why it’s wrong.

Improving Your Present

There are two types of joyful events that we experience; they are pleasures and gratifications. Pleasures are immediate hits of happiness, such as enjoying some ice cream or having a pleasant conversation with friends. Importantly, pleasures result in immediate feelings.

Gratifications, on the other hand, don't necessarily involve any feelings. Instead, we’re so immersed in the activity that we lose self-consciousness. In other words, we’re in a state of flow. Examples might include reading an engaging book or playing football.

Whilst pleasures are important to experience, it’s the gratifications that weigh more heavily. The more frequent and intense our flow states, the greater our chances of experiencing true, authentic happiness. So it’s essential to seek out what puts you into a state of gratification to unlock improved joy.


As you’ve read, achieving authentic happiness is in your control. By altering your expectations and improving the things under your voluntary control, you’re well on your way to greater joy. We hope you have a great remainder of the day as you put these techniques into practice!

August 1, 2022
Dr Noreen Akram
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