How (Not) To Be Happy
A reminder that our intuition about happiness is often wrong
Subject Area: Psychology
Sisyphus takes us back to school – Nigeria and Her Excesses – Marcus Crassus drinks a cup of molten gold – The Mathematical Approximation of Sisyphus’s Dilemma – Epicurus, Orgasm, and his friends.
Sisyphus takes us back to school
Happiness can be elusive.
If you don’t believe me, a quick call to a local psychologist will do, your 80-something-year-old grandmother (they are very, very wise), or perhaps, if you are not impatient – an honest and deep introspection.
But if you have a few minutes to spare, I will start with a philosophical trip to Ephyra – we need to visit Sisyphus. He remains very valuable to us.
Sisyphus was the first king of Ephyra (Corinth) and the son of King Aeolus of Thessaly. He had so many hobbies, but a popular one was the act of killing almost anything, including humans. And he also had a knack for all the nastiest trickeries you could think of; that time wouldn’t permit me to go through here.
Predictably, he finally stepped on some huge toes – this time, it was the gods (Zeus).
He tried to play a trick on Zeus but got busted, so he was given an assignment – to roll a big rock up a long steep hill.
Just as he was about to reach the top of the hill with the rock, Zeus showed Sisyphus he was the mother of trickery – he engaged in some complicated enchantments that caused the rock to roll away from Sisyphus, and it fell. So he goes down to pick it up; just as he is about to reach the top again, it falls, ultimately consigning Sisyphus to a brutal, eternal punishment. So much for an assignment.
As I type these words, Sisyphus is still battling with the rock. Hopefully, he will be fine.
Nigeria and Her Excesses
I grew up in Nigeria, and one has to say that Nigeria is not the best place to grow up in certain aspects – definitely not in terms of formal education.
The thing is – and this is just one out of plenty – the power supply is crappy. Even on college campuses, you wouldn’t get electricity to, say, read your lecture notes at night. And the problem is, I was a bit intense, which meant that I had to read with craploads of candles – the only viable alternative for me at the time to the government’s epileptic power supply.
And I have to say this – the number of candles I bought in college would be enough to build a Polish Gothic castle, only and only if bricks were made of paraffin wax.
So, an epidemic goal then was, “if I could live in a world where ‘light’ doesn’t blink, that would be awesome, and I would be happier.”
To put it directly, it isn’t exactly clear if I was happier, which invariably meant my initial hypothesis was wrong.
I later got a scholarship to study in the United States. After the honeymoon, I asked myself this question:
“Are you happier as a result of the uninterrupted power supply in the US?”
I couldn’t say yes.
This is the Sisyphean dilemma – the rock rolled back to the bottom of the cliff.
Mathematical Approximation of Sisyphus’s Dilemma.
Now that we have mapped out the idea let’s put some calculus on it to bring the idea to life.
And here is something you could tattoo on your chest, just for fun.
Dhϴ = Ch – Eh
Differential Happiness = Current Happiness – Expected Happiness.
(A mathematical approximation of Sisyphus’s dilemma)
Where expected happiness (Eh) is the happiness expected from achieving a specific goal; current happiness (Ch) is the judgment of well-being (happiness) at a specific moment; and differential happiness (Dhϴ) is the difference between Eh and Ch, to keep track of expectations.
Let’s say you hit your jackpot today, a goal you had brutally longed for, like, brutally.
Dhϴ will equal 0. Current happiness will equal the expected happiness. That is, Sisyphus’s rock is close to the top of the cliff, if not at the top, gladly.
However, the moment you begin to settle into your new status, Ch will decrease. Believe me. It will decrease.
And because Eh remains constant, (unless you could go back in time and change your expectation), most people end up with a negative Dhϴ — the rock at the bottom of the cliff).
Hence, the Sisyphean ordeal.
This, friends, is called the hedonic treadmill.
But why is this the case? You might ask.
The uber-Psychologist-Nobel-Laureate Daniel Kahneman solved the puzzle, and he gave the illusion a befitting name – the focusing illusion .
Here is the thing, our shabby assessment of future happiness (Eh from our lovely equation) is caused by the difference between the act of thinking about attaining a goal or a condition; and living in that actual condition.
In my earlier example, when I had angelic thoughts about uninterrupted electricity supply, I focused on this specific life condition ignoring everything else — as such, exaggerating its importance.
However, the mismatch came along: I soon realized that it was impossible to think of an uninterrupted power supply all day, especially when I had tons of experiments to complete in the lab, papers to write, seminars, and classes to attend, and the list goes on. Please, the reader must note that attention is pivotal here.
At this junction, we can comfortably state the following without any qualms:
"Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it." 
I will let you chew on that for a bit; in the meantime, let’s dig up some history.
Epicurus, Orgasm, and his friends
It is almost impossible to write about happiness extensively and not mention some names. One of those names is Epicurus, and I won’t finish this essay without mentioning his works.
Born in Samos, died in Athens, he was one of the greatest philosophers of the Hellenic periods (the period between the death of Alexander the Great and the emergence of the Roman empire).
He companions several philosophies, amongst them are 1) atomic materialism, the idea that matter contains an indivisible component called an atom, following through Democritus's footsteps, a very, very old idea. We are talking circa 300 BC here; 2) An epistemology grounded in empiricism, what you see is what you get (WYSIWYG), that kind of thing, to put it colloquially.
However, here, we will focus on his hedonistic ethics.
Here was what Epicurus thought: “pleasure is the beginning and the goal of a happy life” 
However, there were misconceptions, greaaaaaaat misconceptions.
You see, when Epicurus got grants to start his ‘school of happiness’ called Garden, in Athens, with his friends Hermarchus, Idomeneus the merchant, Leontus, Themista, the mathematician Polyaenus, Metrodorus, and Leontion. The goal was to figure out the source of this happiness thingy. What is it exactly?
But it didn’t take long before rumors started to spread. Rumors of puking sessions performed exclusively by gluttons who couldn’t figure out exactly when to stop eating; sexual intercourse performed by, well, professional epicurean pornstars, all in the name of pleasure-seeking.
A philosopher named Diotimus the Stoic went the extra length. He forged and published lewd documents supposedly written by Epicurus while high on pleasure to prove some of these points. He was later sentenced to death by the Zeno the Epicureans 
Note that the misconceptions of the Epicureans are carried on thousands of years afterward, up till today.
I typed the word epicurean in Google. So here is what I have got, “a person devoted to sensual enjoyment, especially that derived from fine food and drink.” with synonyms like sensualist, sybarite, and pleasure seeker.
So, if all those were rumors, what was the Garden all about?
It was akin to a social experiment to answer the happiness question with the following hypotheses: it is not a lot of money that makes us happy. Instead, we are happy when we live communally with friends, live simply, engage in meaningful contemplation and self-reflection, and avoid the stiff competition associated with city life.
The experiment was a success. It worked out, largely.
Friendship ranked, perhaps, highest.
Here, Cicero quotes Epicurus:
“Of all the things which wisdom has contrived which contribute to a blessed life, none is more important, more fruitful, than friendship.” 
In case you are having problems settling in with these results, we can fast forward some 2,300 years and see what progress we have made.
Modern Psychologists have effectively replicated Epicurus’s results, where they showed that the best predictors of our happiness are quality, positive contact with friends and relatives, and absence of physical pain . In fact, the longest study on happiness, an 80-year-old study from Harvard, effectively replicated this result.
“The Harvard Study has found a strong association between happiness and close relationships like spouses, family, friends, and social circles. “Personal connection creates mental and emotional stimulation, which are automatic mood boosters, while isolation is a mood buster,” says Dr. Waldinger. This is also an opportunity to focus on positive relationships and let go of negative people in your life, or at least minimize your interactions with them.”
And what about money?
Let me be clear, poverty makes most, if not all, people miserable. Moreover, research has shown that poverty exacerbates reports of experienced misfortune in other areas of life. In other words, lack of money makes the blade pierce deeper .
However, the billions aren’t guaranteed to make you any happier. In fact, fame and wealth are not merely overrated, they are often ‘death’ traps waiting patiently for those who are unprepared for its intrigue.
Fun fact, just in case you don’t know: A few years ago, some psychologists reported in a study that money doesn’t count towards happiness (experienced well-being) beyond $75,000 per annum if you live in an expensive neighborhood in the United States .
And how do we make sense of these observations? I will say, focusing illusion and the hedonic treadmill – the former is the mechanism that drives the latter.
For all that has been said, and let's face it, it isn’t too difficult to reason to the things that make us have positive experienced well-being, even if our intuition betrays us. Because we are in constant contact with people, it’s impossible for the implications of our relationship to not fill up our emotions. And if it’s a relationship that steeps us in a state of fear, anxiety, jealousy, or hatred. What will anyone expect?
The Dalai Lama chimes in: “People were made to be loved, and things were made to be used. The reason why the world is in chaos is because things are being loved and people are being used.”
Conclusione and Some HouseKeeping
One can’t beat the drum enough:
There is a huge lacuna between what we think will make us happy and what does.
Let me wrap this up with a very short story.
In 1990, a Canadian called Danny Simpson was sentenced to jail for six years for robbing a bank of $6000. Fair enough. He got what he deserved, one could say. Only that he had done the dirty job using a WW1 vintage Colt .45 valued at up to $100,000 .
In other words, Danny used a $100,000 gun to rob a bank of $6,000. That’s heavy.
What else can be said except to echo a famous philosopher's words: “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not.”
References & Notes
 Marcus Crassus wealth estimations: Mary Beard. (2015) SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome Pp 319. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.
 Marcus Crassus death: Cassius Dio, Roman History 40, 26.3
 Edge Foundation. (2012). This will make you smarter Pp 49 (The Focusing Illusion by Daniel Kahneman) HarperCollins Publishers.
 Daniel Kahneman (2011) The Focusing Illusion. Edge.org. Retrieved 20:15, April 13, 2020, from https://www.edge.org/response-detail/11984
 Alain de Botton. (2000) The Consolations of Philosophy. Pp 50. Vintage Books, New York
 Athenaeus, xiii.611 Retrieved 21:08, September 1, 2018, from http://www.attalus.org/old/athenaeus13d.html#611 Here Athenaeus apparently referring to the Diotimus scandal mistook Theotimus for Diotimus.
 Brad Inwood and L.P Gerson. (1997) Hellenistic Philosophy: Introductory Readings. Pp 61 Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge
 Daniel Kahneman. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow Pp 395. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.
 Ibid Pp 396.
 Ibid Pp 397.
 Victoria Times 19th September 1990. Retrieved 22:10, September 1, 2018, from: http://www.c4vct.com/kym/humor/histor.htm