Author Q&A: Rakesh Sarin and Manel Baucells

  • May 24, 2012

Q&A with the authors of Engineering Happiness: "A new approach for building a joyful life”

Engineering Happiness: “a new approach for building a joyful life”

Manel Baucells and Rakesh Sarin have been conducting research on happiness for more than a decade, and in this book they distill their provocative findings into a guide for a wide audience of readers. Integrating the latest thinking in the behavioral and social sciences, they offer a new approach to the puzzle of happiness and the search for a more joyful life. Engineering Happiness offers a few major principles that explain how happiness works and why it is so elusive.

What made you two decide to “engineer” happiness? How did you collaborate?

We had been working for a long time on preference theory and decision analysis — how people make choices about business plans and investments, for example. We looked at the research on happiness — why people choose A over B because A will make them happier or more satisfied. At that point, we were not looking at the mechanism that creates happiness or unhappiness.

The two of us, the authors of this book, were born and raised in different countries: India and Spain. We were reared in different religions: Hinduism and Catholicism. We realized that in spite of our vast cultural differences, similar things make us happy.

So then we started thinking that maybe there were some general principles that pull all of these things together. There’s lots of information out there about how to be happy, but it’s haphazard and disorganized. That’s where engineering comes in — quantifying things, with the goal of setting happiness as a well formulated decision problem that employs analytics for solutions.

Two heads came together and produced “Happydons”?

Being happy is all about making choices, and describing happiness mathematically helps us see this. We define happiness as the total sum, over time, of momentary emotions, feelings and states of mind. Moment-happiness — pain or pleasure in a particular moment — is very volatile, prone to outside influences and not a good measure. To truly get a sense of overall happiness, we need to measure the intensity and duration of moment-happiness over an extended period of time, similar to the way a seismogram measures ground motion over time.

Stated simply, total happiness is the sum total of pleasures minus pains. “Happydons,” while they’re not really precise, are still a good unit of measure for all those “How are you feeling right now?” moments over time. Let’s say, using a -10 (extremely unhappy) to +10 (extremely happy) scale for Happydons. If I’m enjoying a meal with my family, I rate at +9 Happydons. Later, if I am stuck in traffic on the freeway, I rate that at -4. The question then becomes “How can I improve the total sum of happiness? How can I increase the frequency and duration of the positive and reduce the negative?”

Yours is a different sort of book, with equations, charts, graphs, and yet the simplest explanations are in the chapter quotes like Thoreau’s “The man is the richest whose pleasures are the cheapest.” Which quote in your book do you believe would be most useful if we said it to ourselves every day? Why?

The quote that captures the essence of the book was said by Buddha: “No one saves us, but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.” So, happiness to us is like a sailboat. Indeed, the wind and ocean currents influence its movements, but you have control of the rudder. You must exert that control to guide your sailboat so that is does not drift.

At one point, you tell the reader to “extract the most joy out of current experience by comparing it to a less favorable event of the past.” This advice would seem to immediately diminish the present of any emotion. Are we to do this when we’re finished experiencing the present joy to attempt to make it last?

It is comforting to look for the silver lining when dealing with a bad situation such as a health condition or poor service that does not meet your expectations. You may not be able to completely eliminate the negative emotions of these situations, but comparison to a potentially more unfortunate event could diminish the negative impact. For good situations, when you are experiencing positive Happydons, live in the moment and enjoy.

Engineering and happiness don’t seem to even belong in the same universe, like spontaneity and planning. How do you reconcile the two?

Engineering happiness means that we control our attitudes and choices to cultivate positive emotions and to regulate negative emotions. Any experience (e.g., a vacation or surgery) generates periods of positive and negative Happydons before and after the event. With proper planning, we can maximize our total happiness of anticipation, the experience itself and recall.

Equations seem to remove simplicity. Do you think this is true? Now we have to think before we can feel happiness?

Each time we throw a ball, we aren’t thinking of the laws of motion. Similarly, once you recognize that happiness is relative, it changes a part of your life view, and your choices and attitudes become harmonious, leading to a happier life.

Chapter 11 is all about reframing, and the quote “the last of the human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude” seems to be the crux of the matter. Can we just decide to be happy?

Extracting more happiness from the same reality is a skill that can be learned, and perhaps it is one of the golden keys to well-being in life. Chapter 11 of the book provides several ideas on how to develop the skill of reframing, but it requires effort and practice. Each day if we reframe just one experience from negative to positive, then over time reframing will become habitual.

How did you settle on six laws? Can they be adapted to the severely depressed? How so?

We settled on six laws because these capture the bulk of the findings from scientific research and ancient wisdom on causes and contributors to happiness. These laws are not set in stone and could be refined in future research. For the severely depressed, we recommend immediate medical attention. If there are biological reasons for the condition, then there is not much choice. Once a person is on the path to recovery, our laws can indeed be helpful.

Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, seemed to have a simple formula for happiness, to “search for meaning.” Or would it be better still to “make something meaningful” or to just decide what is meaningful and act accordingly?

We agree with Victor Frankl. We argue that a cumulative view of reality helps a person see meaning and purpose in life. We should recognize that the realty is not one truth out there. We have a choice in how we interpret our reality. In a well-known parable, a traveler comes upon a group of hard-at-work stonemasons. He asks each in turn what he is doing. John says, “I am constructing a wall.” But Paul says, “I am building a cathedral.” Even though John and Paul are doing the same work, Paul sees a greater purpose and meaning in his daily work.

Besides emphasizing basic goods in life, happiness has a chance to blossom if we view reality as a cumulative good. Cumulative goods naturally produce a less-to-more perception. Progressing toward goals, helping with causes that transcend us, developing relationships are ways to be happy by gradually filling the metaphorical bucket. In cumulative activities, the gap between accumulated reality and expectations ensures a constant flow of happiness. Viewing reality in a cumulative way requires that you appreciate how far you have come, rather than just what you have accomplished today. To be happy, we should set goals (losing weight, writing a poem, preparing for a marathon, or helping a charity) and make progress towards these goals.

What is your single standout discovery that folks will learn by reading Engineering Happiness and how do you recommend they get started?

You should plan your life carefully so that the gap between reality and expectations stays the same or increases. This is because a logical implication of our laws of happiness is the fundamental equation: Happiness equals Reality minus Shifting Expectations. That is, the way to be happy is not just to have a lot, but to follow a crescendo strategy in life choices – less to more. On a small, short-term scale, this can be done on a vacation; rather than immediately visiting the most spectacular museum or historic site, save those experiences for the end of your trip. But as a philosophy of life, you can work to organize the chapters in your book of life from less to more (that is, follow a crescendo strategy). In raising children, for example, do not give them too much too fast. In organizations such as those with call centers or service employees, more frequent promotions associated with achieving some well-defined milestone or goal will improve employee satisfaction. So what matters is not the height of the ladder, but that you are gradually climbing the ladder. Crescendo strategy is very similar to what is used in karate by awarding different color belts for progress.

Just last week, The Washington Post published an article titled “Too Much Happiness Can Make You Unhappy, Studies Show.” Not only that, it can make you gullible, selfish, less successful and maybe even stupid. Why, it might even make us racists? Startling, no? In the same article, a Yale University psychology professor states that happiness may even hamper career prospects because we’re too happy to know that we actually hate our jobs. Could this be true?

Let us distinguish between two classes of situations. In one, we have no control, such as when a wind storm destroys our roof. In this type of situation, it is better to reframe (“at least we and our loved ones are safe”) and to turn the negative into a positive. In the other, we have control and find ourselves in a bad satiation, such as with an oppressive boss. We have a choice in these situations, and we recommend against tolerating and living with them. Even if the short-term consequences of getting out of these situations may be painful (e.g., financial hardship), long-term happiness is realized by making the bold choice to get out. So we should be careful not be mechanistic in the application of our ideas.

Why all the sudden attention to happiness?

Researchers have found that happy people are healthier, liver longer and have better social relationships. To be happy is a basic human desire with lots of side benefits. We can now measure happiness through a variety of means, including neuroimaging. So, now we have a large amount of data on happiness from millions of people throughout the world. For example, Gallup collects information on emotional well-being of Americans every day.

The article recommends that we experience three positive emotions for every one negative. How would you rate this ratio?

The ratio 3 to 1 is a key. At or above this ratio, our net happiness stays positive and we flourish. Below this ratio, negativity wins. The same ratio applies to relationships in which a ratio of a least 3 positive interactions to 1 negative one predicts stability of the relationship. This is consistent with the law of aversion to loss, in which losses count for more than double that of gains.

Your book says “Happiness resides in the mind.” Is there an equation for keeping it there?

Our equation is that “Happiness equals Reality minus Shifting Expectations,” and shows that happiness is elusive, as expectations chase reality. To keep happiness in the mind, one needs to gain control over expectations and make sure reality is one step ahead.

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