How Can I Maximize My Happiness?
TLDR: It’s really hard to measure happiness.
How can I maximize my “long-term short-term happiness?” I wish I knew how to answer this question. Many people would tell me not to try. And some would say to just choose to be happy. That’s helped, but it hasn’t made my life blissful.
And I think it’s possible I can be sustainably happier. Yes, I believe the “hedonic treadmill” is “real.” But I don’t think it’s a constant all-out sprint. I basically ate the same turkey sandwich for lunch every weekday from 8th grade through 11th grade.1 I’ve enjoyed my lunch more since then. Even though I still essentially eat the same thing almost every day.2
Granted, those links essentially said, “I speculate black people are happier because they continue to enjoy encountering less racism” and “People are less happy while they’re in prison.” I think I’ve already made the simplest changes to increase my happiness. Further progress won’t be easy.
So I think it’s worth considering making a more conscious effort to figure out how I can be happier.
What Should I Do?
I’m not expecting to stumble upon the secret to happiness. To become optimally happy, it’d help to do optimal research. But, “How can I do optimal research?” is a daunting question too. For now, I’ve googled variants of “how to maximize my happiness,” with and without rationalist site prefixes, and I tried Elicit.
At this point, I’ve memorized the generic happiness advice. Sleep enough. Exercise enough. Eat well enough. Have good enough relationships. Meditate. Show gratitude. Write about gratitude in your diary. Have a purpose. Live your purpose. Get your hands dirty.
I’m thankful for some of that advice. If I’d never heard that exercise or writing was beneficial, I’m not sure how easy it would’ve been to discover that on my own.
So I don’t expect to find all the answers I seek in academic papers anytime soon. I don’t expect myself to evaluate what I read perfectly either.
I’ll try to do the best I can.
What even is “happiness?” How do I measure it?
I can answer the first question for myself. When I define it as a positive emotional state or a good feeling, you may not quite 100% know what I mean. But, while I hope my words help you (that would make me happier), I don’t need to use words to communicate with myself. I can feel what I describe in writing as happiness.
Unfortunately, my communication with myself still needs work. If I ask myself, “How would I rate my happiness right now from 0-10?” I’d need to decide what I mean by a 0 and a 10. Is a 10 equivalent to the best feeling of my life so far, or the most happiness I could imagine?3
That question may not matter. I’ve never asked myself, “How happy am I?” when I’m really happy. I’m always too immersed in enjoying whatever I’m doing to ask myself that. Similarly, when I’m really sad I’ll know it, but I won’t be up for thinking about how to precisely quantify my sadness. Maybe I’ll tell myself this is the worst moment of my life. But I’d just say that because I’m in a bad mood. I don’t think I can perfectly recall how the saddest moments of my life felt.
So, in practice, I feel most comfortable rating my current happiness from “very unhappy” (0) to “very happy” (10). With that scale, I’d say I’m a 5.2 out of 10 right now. Who are you to say I’m wrong? And it only took a few seconds to come up with that score.
But I don’t think I have 100% consistent definitions of very unhappy or very happy. What I consider a 5.2 out of 10 right now might be a 5.4 to me next week.
From mid-May 2020 through June 2020, I rated my happiness on a daily basis (I missed a few days) using integers (a 1-7 Likert scale). And I think my definitions for each category (e.g., mildly happy (5), somewhat happy (6)) were consistent enough that I wouldn’t confuse them. But I couldn’t measure how my happiness changes that precisely on a Likert scale. And some days felt like they were in between a 5 and a 6, but I forced myself to choose one number.
Plus, when I say my happiness is a 5.2 right now, I mean right now. When I tracked my happiness, my mood generally fluctuated enough that I couldn’t do quick mental math to determine my average happiness for an entire day. I’d ask myself, “How happy was I when I had that fun conversation at 10am?”, “How unhappy was I when my roommate was being annoying at 2pm?”, “How much did I enjoy winning that game of werewolf at 9pm?”, “How stupid did I feel when I lost the next game of werewolf?”, “How long did I feel stupid?” etc. And I suspect I sometimes gave myself a higher happiness score because it temporarily made me happy to look at a higher number. Especially if it was higher than yesterday’s score. And maybe recency bias led me to more heavily weight what had just happened when deciding my score for the day?4
I never made a concerted effort to analyze my happiness data. Looking back at it now, I’ve quickly observed that I recorded being unhappy on days I was experiencing constipation.5 I believe that.
But I didn’t need my old notes to remind myself that constipation made me miserable. And I assume I’d also notice something like winning the lottery made me happier.6 I imagine quantifying my happiness accurately would be useful because it’d help me notice small long-term changes in my happiness level.
Indirectly Measuring Happiness
Ideally, I wouldn’t just want to know whether I’ve become slightly happier or unhappier. I’d want to know why. But to do that perfectly, I’d need to be able to know what contributes to my happiness. And measure it.
Some researchers are attempting to quantify happiness based on biological factors.
However, as far as I know, there’s no commercially available way to monitor the levels of my hormones or neurotransmitters (e.g., serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin) associated with happiness. And just taking these hormones wouldn’t make me super-happy. That could cause serious health problems7.8
Positive psychologists have also tried to break down what factors lead to happiness. They’ve come up with tests measuring these possible factors. There’s the PERMA profiler, the Secure Flourish measure, the Well-being Profile Pro, the Flourishing Scale, and many more. They tend to essentially ask, “Do you have friends?”, “Are you physically fit?” and “Do you have a purpose?” in various ways.
Based on my experience trying Moodscope (a similar happiness test9), I’m not motivated to try taking any of those tests regularly. And these psychologists don’t necessarily have the same values or definition of happiness (and well-being, etc.) as me (or each other).
Even if the creators of those tests defined happiness exactly like me, I’d face all the problems I had when I tried to measure my overall happiness. If my perceived quality of my social relationships contributes to my happiness, how could I precisely measure my relationships? If my physical health contributes to my happiness, how could I precisely measure my physical health? Etc. And how can I measure anything in a time-efficient way?
Earlier in this post, I wrote that I suspected I gave myself higher happiness scores because it temporarily made me happier.
Similarly, I had a phase where I put thousands of little tasks on my to-do list. I convinced myself I was being productive by reducing the number of items on my to-do list. But that led me to weight each task equally, do shorter tasks first, and put off important tasks.
More recently, to improve my time estimation, I tried to predict how long it’d take to write a blog post. But I found myself deciding that certain research counted as work on the post based on whether I wanted my prediction to be correct.10
The point is that any metric can be gamed (i.e., goodharted). So maybe I should try to find ways to judge my happiness based on certain outcomes? It seems harder to delude myself about metrics related to outcomes. For example, while I could convince myself to decide what counted as work on my blog post, I don’t see how I could get myself to believe more people read my blog on Substack than the number of views Substack says I receive.11
But isn’t life about “the journey, not the destination?” And it’s comforting to feel like I'm in control of achieving my goals. When I graduated coding bootcamp, I gave myself the goal of reaching out for 5 referrals per day to job search. If I’d made my goal “get a job,” I’d have to rely on other people to accomplish it. I don’t want to rely on others too much to be happy.
However, I’m starting to think “It’s the journey, not the destination” isn’t a phrase that should be taken too literally. After all, isn’t everything done for an outcome? If I didn’t think reaching out for 5 referrals per day would help me get a job, I wouldn’t have done it. And, as I’ve said, I think the ultimate outcome I always want is immediate happiness.
I’m not sure where to go from here. How do I decide what to measure? How do I measure my ability to choose good metrics? Is it worth trying to come up with metrics right now? If not, wouldn’t that mean there’s something better I could do? What would that be? Maybe I should try to make a more positive impact? Maybe I should work on improving my relationships? Maybe I should do something else entirely?
Or I may not want to come up with metrics right now because that sounds hard and not fun?
I don’t want that to be the reason. Coming up with metrics doesn’t sound “fun,” but I should do it if I think it’s worthwhile.
I think I’m still uncertain about what to do next because the plans I’m considering are vague. And I don’t know how hard it’d be to make progress on them or how much happiness I’d receive from that progress.
But I know one thing I can do no matter how confused I am. It’s time to experiment!
It was turkey, cheese, wheat bread, and ketchup. I can't remember what the cheese was or if it changed. I believe ketchup was replaced with mayonnaise (or mustard?) at some point.
I eat ground turkey (every other day, I have ground beef instead), red kidney beans (which I rotate with black beans), spinach, mixed nuts (peanuts, almonds, cashews, pistachios, pecans), butter, monterey jack cheese (I switch between different cheeses), and oats. I also have an orange separately.
And if I felt happier than whatever I set to 10, I could give myself a score higher than 10, or I could give myself a 10 and translate all my other scores accordingly. So if I was 10% happier than my previous 10, I could either 1) give myself an 11 (since 11 is 10% higher than 10. 10 * 1.1 = 11) or 2) give myself a 10 and divide 10 by 11 to get a new score of 9.09 for my previous 10s. And I’d divide my other old happiness scores by 11 to get their new scores.
One 1987 study claims that finding a dime on a copy machine leads people to report increased life satisfaction. (I could only find a copy of the study in German.) This study tried to replicate that study and said it failed to replicate. However, I don’t think it’s a perfect replication. That study asks people to rate their happiness after rolling dice to see if they win a quarter. I think it’d be more enjoyable to surprisingly find money.
I wrote short notes explaining some of my happiness scores.
There have been studies (and exaggerated (if not false) presentations about those studies) suggesting that winning the lottery doesn’t make people happier. But more recent larger studies suggest winning the lottery does increase happiness. Research on how the lottery affects happiness is discussed in more detail here.
I used Moodscope 3 times in April 2020. I didn’t find its 20-question test helpful, and its UI makes it take an annoyingly long time to answer a question.
I’m aware there are ways I could make the Substack dashboard say my post got more views, (e.g., changing the DOM) and technically get more views. (e.g., clicking on the post myself, coding/buying a bot to repeatedly view the post) But I don’t think I’d be able to convince myself that doing that would make me happier.