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The Happiness Hypothesis

Is there an equation for happiness?

I was on a weekend trip to a friend’s cottage. Absent-minded and curious, I browsed through shelves in the study, scanning book spines for an interesting read to take to the fire-lit cottage evening. A bright yellow book stood out among the rows. I have since purchased that book myself. It sits on my own bookshelf at home.

Shelves of happiness in my home

When I first laid eyes on the volume, the word Happiness popped out at me from the bright yellow background. It was already a stimulating sight for sore eyes. I plucked it off the shelf and read the words on the cover. It was a book which promised me happiness. In an equation. A simple, one line equation, at that. It inspired me to think about what it meant to be happy.

The equation for happiness

I have since been reading up on the different ways that happiness is described by others, and the different ways in which others strive to reach it. Through my research, I have found 4 main theories which I think interact with one another to form the basis of what it means to live a satisfying and fulfilling life.

The Happiness Equation

The Happiness Equation

I came across the bestseller book The Happiness Equation by Neil Pasricha (click here to view it if you live in Canada) that winter at my friend’s family cottage. This bright blue beast was the first book that tore my one-track gaze away from pure fiction and fantasy novels to the world of self-help. The source of my intrigue began with the way the author had managed to sum up the entire concept of happiness and how to achieve it with a simple formula:


Pasricha delves into this concept more deeply in his book, breaking it down into 9 Secrets to a happier existence. But the basis for it is the simple formula displayed above.

The basic idea of this formula is that if you don’t have any expectations or if you don’t live life feeling like it owes you anything, then you will be satisfied with life as it is; in other words, it is a form of accepting what is and doing anything in the realm of what you can control.

While it proved to be an interesting approach, I still felt like something was lacking in the definition. It seemed to me too vague to encompass what it took to be happy.

Active vs. Passive Pleasure

Active pleasure

When it comes to “doing anything” as is stated in the equation above, I feel it is best when combined with the act of or engagement in active pleasure.

Defining Active and Passive Pleasure


Active pleasure refers to positive experience gained from actively engaging in an activity which one enjoys .

Passive pleasure refers to positive experience gained from engaging in a passive activity where the brain receives pleasure/reward without having to work for it.

The following are some examples of both active and passive pleasure.


Creative flow
  • completing a project
  • writing a book
  • building a house
  • programming a game
  • making a movie
  • any activity in which you are actively engaged in order to create something


Netflix, the master of passive pleasure (though not always)
  • watching TV without a purpose
  • playing video games without a purpose
  • surfing social media
  • eating when not hungry
  • performing any passive activity without engaging your mind, simply for the sake of doing so

NOTE that a passive activity can become active depending on how it is perceived. For example, if you are playing a video game or watching a movie in order to create a review about it afterward, it becomes part of active pleasure circuitry.


Passive pleasure is associated with Epicurian Hedonism, where one is simply looking to seek pleasure/reward (as well as absence of pain) in the moment without having to work for it. But the reward gained from passive pleasure wears off quickly; it is only felt in the moment of the activity, and there is little else to be gained from it beyond that.

Active pleasure differs in that one is actively working for the positive experience one receives from it. The brain is — and has to be — fully engaged in the activity to produce successful results; it cannot stay passive.

How To Distinguish Between the Two “Pleasures”

One easy way to characterize/distinguish between the two forms of pleasure is by how you feel during and after the activity.

As mentioned earlier, one tends to feel good in the moment of engaging in a passive pleasure activity, but afterward questions what result the activity had achieved (what was the point of it?); the individual may feel like it had been a waste of time.

“If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.”

On the other hand, during engagement in an active pleasure activity, the mind is fully engaged. As a result, there may be a resistance or a feeling of “challenge” during the activity, which might not feel so great; but after the activity, the individual feels like they have accomplished something worthwhile with their time. Individuals tend to feel good after performing an active pleasure activity, like they have rightfully earned their positive feelings/experiences, and thus they feel better for it.

Video games as a passive pleasure

PASSIVE PLEASURE (little to no engagement)

  • feels good in the moment/beginning of activity, feels bad/unfulfilling after

ACTIVE PLEASURE (full engagement)

  • feels challenging/difficult in the moment, feels good after

Abundance vs. Scarcity Mindset

Abundance vs. scarcity

Now coming back to the notion of the happiness equation: the reason why this formula is so effective is because it provides the idea or mindset that one already has all the necessary factors/things in place to be happy at any given time. You already have everything you need so you don’t want anything, and as a result you can do anything (yes, the equation can be flipped around too). This also closely ties into the notion of abundance vs. scarcity thinking/mindset.

Defining Abundance and Scarcity Mindset

Abundance of field crops


  • also known as “gratitude thinking/gratitude mindset”
  • focusing one’s energy and thoughts on being grateful for what one already has
  • (focus on what is present)


  • focusing one’s energy and thoughts on the qualities they or others lack, don’t have (yet), or still need in order to feel good or happy
  • (focus on what is absent)

Using Scarcity Mindset for Active Achievement

The spark to light a fire

While one needs to be aware of what is lacking (or be dissatisfied with what there currently is) in order to produce change, it is dangerous to stay in this scarcity mindset for no reason. Pairing a scarcity mindset with active pleasure allows one to only be in a scarcity mindset when one is doing so for the reason to accomplish something in that given moment.

The key here is in that moment.

In other words, it is best to only focus on what is absent in the moments where one can actively do something to change or improve that scarcity. When one is finished actively seeking to improve or create what is scarce in that moment, it is ideal to move back into abundance with what one has created, improved, or fixed.

An individual can repeat this cycle over as many times as needed, and be in scarcity mindset in the moment of building, but the key here is that in “resting state” — when one is not in the process of refining or building — one is in this state of fullness or abundance. In this way a person can maximize happiness while still working to “fix what is lacking”, and that sense of accomplishment that comes from the engagement in active pleasure to engage the mind will follow.

Value/Moral System Alignment

Child on a ladder

The last and final definition of happiness that I have come across is:

“When actions align with thoughts and words, happiness follows.”

Lights, cameras, action; thoughts, words, action

I think the meaning of this has to do with one’s own personal value system (or if one wants to call it, their moral system). It touches upon the idea that if you really truly believe something is right, living in that way will provide a sense of fulfillment that you have lived in accordance with your moral obligations and values. If you think something is true, say something is true, and then also act in accordance with your thoughts and your words, you are living in accordance with your own personal value system.

Feeling the rush

If you compromise these values in a way that you don’t actually believe is right, you are essentially compromising your self-respect, and you won’t be happy, especially if you were doing it for a short-term passive pleasure, where you will have essentially betrayed your idea of truth for a fleeting moment of feeling a rush.

The Happiness Hypothesis

Pairing active pleasure of full mind engagement activities to improve existing abundance of worldly existences in line with your value system is, in my opinion, the greatest way to maximize the happiness equation.

Happy face

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