The Happiness Equation

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Consider the basis of your expectations. To the extent that you can make more accurate predictions about outcomes in your future, you increase your chances of feeling happiness.

Consider that gratitude is easier to come by when disappointment is minimal.

Tony Robbins gets this, but my mother got it long before Tony Robbins.
Mom and my sister, 1939

She died of ovarian cancer when I was turning 21.
From her diagnosis to her demise was just a matter of a few weeks.
My being rocked by the sudden, unpredicted loss of such a healthy—not to mention significant—woman, propelled me into my quest for meaning.
It  led me to the life-long philosophy, “Don’t Postpone Joy!”


Before her untimely death, my mom was able to offer me many valuable lessons and advice that I was too young and brash to take to heart at the time. I have been sorting it out ever since, and now I can look back on it with amazed, and sometimes amused, appreciation.

Among her many talents, intelligence and abilities, my mom dispensed a wealth of armchair psychology and old-world philosophy. Having landed in Brooklyn for a few years, her Austrian and Hungarian immigrant parents lived with us in a typical Philadelphia “row home,” providing a daily amalgam of superstition, philosophy, and Orthodox Jewish law. She was fascinated with the idea of “neurosis”. In an era (the 1940s and 1950s) when Freud was all the rage, neurosis was everybody’s condition, and psycho-pharmacology, especially the use of barbiturates, was taking off like a rocket.

Some of her advice was patently superstitious and just wrong. For example, we only spoke the names of serious illnesses (polio, cancer) in hushed whispers, as if saying them out loud would make them worse or bring them on to somebody else. If you dropped a knife it meant that company was coming; to avoid bad luck, never put a hat on a bed or open an umbrella in the house. And, this strange warning was issued, “If you laugh before breakfast, you will cry before supper!” Really? Don’t be too happy early in the morning? Really?


Even before I was a teenager, she taught me this formula for happiness:

Where H=Happiness, R=Realization, and E=Expectation.

In other words, with any actual outcome or situation, the greater your expectation had been, the less happy you are likely feel.

Conversely, the smaller your expectation, compared to the actual outcome, the happier you will feel.
Prescription for happiness: Keep your expectations low.
In the pseudo-biblical vernacular: She or he who expecteth nothing, ain’t gonna be deceived.


By necessity, most of the decisions, plans and actions that you will make in your lifetime must be based on less than perfect knowledge of the future. By necessity, your expectations rely on predictions and your happiness relies not necessarily on lowering expectations, but on your ability to adjust your expectations appropriately.


Dictionary Definitions of related terms

Expect: to look forward to; regard as likely to happen; anticipate the occurrence or the coming of.
Predict: to declare or tell in advance; prophesy; foretell.
Wish: to want; desire; long for (usually followed by an infinitive or a clause): I wish to travel. I wish that it were morning.
Hope: the feeling that what is wanted can be had or that events will turn out for the best: a person or thing in which expectations are centered.

Belief: something believed;  an opinion or conviction, e.g. a belief that the earth is flat. Confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof.

Evidence: that which tends to prove or disprove something; ground for belief; proof; data.

Here’s my point:

  • Expectations are a type of prediction.
  • Predictions are statements, beliefs or hopes, about the future.
  • Statements about the future cannot be labeled “true or false”; until the event happens, predictions and expectations can have some probability of being correct.
  • That probability, the odds of correctly forecasting something happening in the future, will be more or less accurate depending on the basis for calculating those odds.
  • When you know how “good” the evidence is for your prediction, your can adjust expectations accordingly; you can minimize the risk of disappointment, and maximize your happiness –and gratitude– related to the event you predicted.

He or she is a forecaster of weather events, predicting the weather in statements about the future, and couching those predictions as the odds of the occurrence of some weather phenomenon.

For example, when you hear that the forecast is for a chance of rain you can make plans about taking an umbrella or not, leaving early for an appointment, driving or not, etc. What will be very helpful to your planning is knowing the percentage of chance of rain. A 10% chance of rain may influence you differently than a 90% chance of rain.

Whether its the weather forecast or your best friend telling you about the new neighbors who are about to move in, or a co-worker telling you about the forthcoming policy changes, or a TV ad telling you what will happen if such-and-such candidate is elected, you need ot be asking, “How do you know?”

Your knowing the basis of a forecast is critical to your setting your expectations and, therefore, to your happiness. Did the weatherman consult tea leaves or was modern meterorological science involved?

By the way, whatever the prediction, a careful forecaster will be correct. A 90% chance of rain also means a 10% chance of “not rain”. If you tote your umbrella to work and it doesn’t rain, don’t blame the forecaster; the prediction included the “no rain” possibility, too.

Examine the basis for your expectations and for your predictions of outcomes in your life. Are they based on lots of personal experiences, or on claims made by an actor paid to be in a TV commercial. Are you pinning your hopes on good science or on your most recent Fortune Cookie?

The more important the outcome is to you, the important it is to have a solid basis for your prediction/expectation.

For example, going out to dinner at your favorite restaurant, you will probably pile the family in the car and drive over there. You are actually predicting that the restaurant will be open, and you are acting on that prediction. If it turns out to be closed for renovations, your disappointment over your casual prediction/expectation will likely be minimal and short-lived, and you will find another restaurant.

However, if the restaurant were 150 miles away and the trip required an overnight stay, you probably wouldn’t just start driving in that direction. Your happiness and gratitude are at greater risk if you fail to do some checking and, instead, act as if you are 100% certain it was still there and still open, with hotels with vacancies nearby. You could reduce the risk of disappointment to yourself and your family, and increase the likelihood of happiness for them, by doing some calling ahead. You would then make a better prediction and adjust your expectations accordingly.

Typically, adjusting your expectations to maximize your happiness and gratitude takes practice, but I predict that you will say it is worth the effort.

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About the Author

Steve Wilson

Award-winning psychologist, Steve Wilson, also known as The Joyologist and The Cheerman of the Bored, has spent 30 years specializing in applied and therapeutic humor with a humanitarian mission. As Director of National Humor Month, he intertwines science and ancient wisdom with substance and humor to create practical methods to lead the world to health, happiness and peace through laughter. More than six thousand people have completed his unique training in how to create therapeutic laughter, and tens of thousands more around the world have been uplifted by his talks, classes, books, and articles. He established the World Laughter Tour, Inc., in 1998, to be a rich resource and inspiration for improving productivity, health, and well being in business, healthcare and education. For more information and