What Happens When You Quantify Happiness?

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Paul Dolan’s “Happiness by Design” became so important to me in the past month that I now own multiple copies for reference purposes. The audiobook is for commutes. The paper copy helps me gather quotes for articles, like on this blog. Though this is probably excessive, I think anyone looking to improve their life should read this book. As someone who was quite happy already, I didn’t think I could game my way into being even happier. Somehow, this book did it. Pick it up from your local library!

Here’s an all-too-quick summary you can take a look at right now. If you’re pressed for time, simply click here and save the image. This is a DRM worksheet – it means ‘Day Reconstruction Method’ – and we’ll be referring back to this later. This will allow you to quantify and prioritize your happiness as easily as you do your budget. Here’s why I use it daily.

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Two weeks ago, I was on vacation. For five days, I was in Seattle with friends and I was destroying my budget. It turns out $300 USD, unmonitored, just kind of goes up in smoke if I focus only on “having a good time”. Sometime around Day 3, I started questioning what I was doing. Why was I somehow miserable on vacation? I’d worked seven days straight to have five days off in a row, so I should be enjoying myself, right? Why was focusing on pleasure for once giving me so much anxiety? Without a clear answer, I spent the rest of my trip in a listless limbo, and found myself excited to go back to work. On my first day back, I was energized to be productive again, but not because I was relaxed. I was relieved. The vacation was actually a bad experience for me. What gives?

In his book, Dolan says, “To be truly happy, then, you need to feel both pleasure and purpose.” You need both, and ideally, a balance. He talks about a “pleasure-purpose principle­”. If you focus too much on either side and neglect the other, you end up unfulfilled. For me, two days of pursuing only pleasure and neglecting purpose was enough to make me go wonky, but now I know. If I’d only had the DRM worksheet, I could’ve saved myself a lot of grief.

Summing up the trip as a whole gives me some clues as to why I wasn’t happy. My main activities included “drinking with friends”, “attending panels at a convention”, “eating at restaurants”, “hiking”, etc.

Drinking with friends – [Pleasure: 6, Purpose: 5]
Attending panels – [Pleasure: 4, Purpose: 3]
Eating at restaurants – [Pleasure: 7, Purpose: 4]
Hiking – [Pleasure: 5, Purpose: 4]
THE WHOLE VACATION – [Pleasure: 5, Purpose: 4]

In this case, though my activities were mostly midrange in pleasure, they were entirely lacking in purpose, especially because I was spending significant amounts of money doing things I could’ve done with a staycation. Now, let’s look at a typical workday for me.

Commuting – [Pleasure: 5, Purpose: 4]
Working at the liquor store – [Pleasure: 5, Purpose: 9]
Having good food and drink at home – [Pleasure: 6, Purpose: 5]
Watching some TV – [Pleasure: 6, Purpose: 4]
Going for a walk – [Pleasure: 7, Purpose: 6]
THE WHOLE WORKDAY – [Pleasure: 6, Purpose: 7]

This isn’t an exact science, but if you’re evaluating your own pleasure and purpose honestly, your DRM will allow you to design your own happiness. Notice your daily visits with Mom are a bit like [Pleasure: 4, Purpose: 3], but playing with your kid is like [Pleasure: 7, Purpose: 10]? Well, you have data now, so make a choice. Do you find TV-watching to be like [Pleasure: 5, Purpose: 2], but reading a great novel to be [Pleasure: 6, Purpose: 8]? Make a choice!

The point is to think objectively about what makes you happy. Broken down into just pleasure and purpose, this is as simple as it gets.

I somehow learned I love and enjoy my day-to-day life more than vacations. I can’t imagine anything happier than that! Can the DRM help you hack happiness? I challenge you to find out.

Think of it as [Pleasure: 3, Purpose: 10]?

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Bens, Booze & Budgets: Part One

If I didn't get my drinking under control,

This is an ongoing series tackling my struggles with alcoholism, and how I strive to do better. We’ll be looking at the financial impact, my overall health, how it’ll affect my longevity, and my happiness along the way. It’s a serious issue, and I don’t intend to take it lightly. Reader discretion is advised.

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My vacations are rarely actual vacations. This time, it involved visiting event planners in Kamloops and Chase to promote my wedding photography. We had a blast, and on our way back, we stopped in to see “Ben and Barbara” for another hike. That’s when “Ben”, a 60-odd tenured academic, took me aside.

I forget the exact words, but his tone was serious. He was very concerned with my drinking. At this point, he’d seen me consume upwards of six beers in a casual night at home. He’d lost friends in their 40s to hard drinking, and he’d never even seen them drunk. I was, what, 29? If I didn’t get my drinking under control, I might only have 10-15 years left. Taken aback by his frankness, I stammered something noncommittal, and headed back to my car. Even now, I’m thinking about it. “You have to reach old age,” he said. Admittedly, I never imagined I wouldn’t.

*****

The Lancet is a medical journal with roots dating back to 1823. Starting as a simple pamphlet in the 19th century, it’s now an online powerhouse of medical studies covering countless aspects of human health. Mere weeks ago, they published a risk analysis on 599,912 drinkers and came to some conclusions, summarized here: Fortunately, they found that people who drink about 6.5 drinks a week or less are mostly okay. But those who drink 6.5 to 12.5 drinks a week have a six-month lower life expectancy at age 40, while those who have 12.5 to 22 drinks a week have one to two years lower life expectancy, and people who drink more than that have four to five years lower life expectancy.”

This was, obviously, not great news for someone who frequently writes about longevity.

I’d spent years trying to convince myself my drinking wasn’t a problem, but the other day, on my way to work, I needed to stop at a bottle depot. It was a sunny day, and I found parking right out front. This was super convenient, I thought to myself. I mean, I had numerous garbage bags full of beer cans. As I stood there organizing my past benders into sticky blue trays, “Ben” crept into my thoughts again. As each tray filled, I found I looked forward to my bottle return less. Each tray I filled looked like a few hours shaved off the end of my life. 10¢, 10¢, 10¢… 10 minutes, 10 minutes, 10 minutes…

$32.50 was the total return. Literally hundreds of beer cans. I realized then that I needed help.

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Here’s where the math comes in. Nothing motivates me more than raw data, so I drew a line in the sand. The article said, “those who have 12.5 to 22 drinks a week have one to two years lower life expectancy, and people who drink more than that have four to five years lower life expectancy.” Well, I knew I didn’t want to be in the latter category, so I set myself a ceiling of 22 drinks a week, or 3 drinks a day. This is still not in line with what constitutes “moderate drinking”, but I was just looking to game the data. For now, any drinking ceiling was better than none. I AM NOW COMMITTED TO NO MORE THAN 3 DRINKS A DAY. And somehow, knowing that was really goddamn liberating. I look in my fridge now, see 9 beers, and I know I have enough for 3+ days. Somehow, this constraint was weirdly welcome in my life. More savings, a longer lifespan, and easier estimation of how long my beer would last me? I think if I remember all the benefits, it’ll be far easier to not drink to excess!

But can I do it? I still don’t know. My optimism is tempered by having failed at things like this before. I suspect I’ll see an 80% success rate with a few “cheat days” along the way. Done well, this sudden new challenge might literally save my life. Done poorly, there might not be a logical reason I’m saving for the future.

As I write this, it’s been just under 24 hours since I finished my last beer. I bought a coffee, but I’m still tempted by the new rye IPA in my fridge. My wall clock is ticking, and the ticks sound louder than normal.

Holy shit, guys. This should not be this difficult.

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Stay tuned for Part Two.