Elizabeth Day: The happiness formula we need right now

I wasn’t sure what to write this week. On the one hand, all I’m currently thinking about is the spread of a global pandemic, the inevitable loss of loved ones, the anticipated months of lockdown and the eternal question of why people are stockpiling loo roll when kitchen roll would serve the same purpose and seems to be available everywhere.

Elizabeth Day happiness
Photograph: Jenny Brough. Hair: Fabio Nogueira. Make-Up: Ruby Hammer. Styling: Holly Elgeti. Blouse: Lisou. Trousers: Roland Mouret. Jewellery: Alighieri

But after a text exchange with my editor, we decided that by the time this column is printed, we’d probably all be feeling a bit overwhelmed with Covid-19 content, and so I see my role as offering some light relief from all that.

When I considered what light relief actually meant, I thought of happiness. Like other emotions, it’s transient and only ever feels as good as it does because we know it will pass, in much the same way that we can appreciate the beauty of a cut flower while also knowing it will die. (Sorry, I know I said ‘light relief’ but bear with me.)

So how can we find moments of happiness in an unhappy time? Last year, I was fortunate enough to interview a man called Mo Gawdat. He is the former chief business officer of Google X, the so-called Moonshot Factory that generates seemingly madcap ideas about balloon-powered internets and self-driving cars. At some point in his late 20s and early 30s, Mo realised that he wasn’t happy. On paper, he had everything: a loving wife, two wonderful children, a well-paid job and flashy cars. Yet none of it translated into happiness.

This prompted him to spend 12 years developing an algorithm for happiness. The basic premise of Mo’s equation is that we are all born happy. An infant with its basic needs catered for (food, shelter, love) is happy without question. But in growing older, we begin to be told lies about happiness depending on all sorts of external factors, such as what clothes we wear, the people we date and how many times we go to the gym.

Mo compared this to buying a new iPhone and crowding out its memory with unnecessary apps so that the phone becomes sluggish and dysfunctional. The problem is not the phone or the human; the problem is the junk we’ve been led to believe we need. Mo’s equation states that ‘your happiness is equal to or greater than the difference between the events of your life and your expectations of how life should behave’. Simply put: if you go out in the morning expecting rain and it rains, you’re OK with it. If you go out expecting sunshine but it starts to rain, you’re sad and probably quite annoyed with yourself for forgetting your umbrella. It’s the same philosophy that applies to the Buddhist principle that pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. And I think it can give us hope in these dark times.

So much of what we’re experiencing right now is out of our control (in fact, most of what we experience on a day-to-day basis is out of our control but we are able to distract ourselves from this unsettling truth by implementing routines and habit). What isn’t out of our control is our response to it. We are able to adjust our expectations so that we don’t live in a perpetual state of disappointment.

We can alleviate our anxious, spiralling thoughts with more positive, proactive ones. So instead of helplessly wringing our hands, we can wash them with soap and water. Instead of obsessing over the people we can’t see, we can call them daily – and we are lucky to live in an age where technology enables us to do this. Instead of worrying about the toilet roll we don’t have, perhaps we could view this as a necessary period of reflection, of slowing-down, of community cohesion, out of which we will all eventually emerge a little bit more compassionate and connected.

This week I’m…

Napping

With the help of a ProNappers Nap Aroma Inhaler – a delicious-smelling blend of soporific lavender, sweet thyme and bergamot essential oils.

Watching

Begin Again on Netflix. A feel-good film about a struggling singer-songwriter and the jaded record-label boss who believes in her.

Visiting

The world’s museums using the virtual tour option offered by many institutions. Avoid crowds while imbibing culture during quarantine.