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Happiness formulas

Jazi Zilber writes:

Have you heard of “the happiness formula”?

Lyubomirsky at al. 2005. Happiness = 0.5 genetic, 0.1 circumstances, 0.4 “intentional activity”

They took the 0.4 unexplained variance and argued it is “intentional activity”

Cited hundreds of times by everybody.

The absurd is, to you even explaining it is unneeded. For others, I do not know how to explain it.

No, I hadn’t heard of it. So I googled *happiness formula*. And what turned up was a silly-looking formula (but not the formula of Lyubomirsky at al. 2005), and some reasonable advice. For example, this from Alexandra Sifferlin in Time magazine in 2014:

Researchers at University College London were able to create an equation that could accurately predict the happiness of over 18,000 people, according to a new study.

First, the researchers had 26 participants complete decisionmaking tasks in which their choices either led to monetary gains or losses. The researchers used fMRI imaging to measure their brain activity, and asked them repeatedly, “How happy are you now?” Based on the data the researchers gathered from the first experiment, they created a model that linked self-reported happiness to recent rewards and expectations.

Here’s what the equation looks like:


Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking . . . it looks like B.S., right? But, as I said, the ultimate advice seemed innocuous enough:

The researchers were not surprised by how much rewards influenced happiness, but they were surprised by how much expectations could. The researchers say their findings do support the theory that if you have low expectations, you can never be disappointed, but they also found that the positive expectations you have for something—like going to your favorite restaurant with a friend—is a large part of what develops your happiness.

Nothing as ridiculous as that formula quoted by Zilber above.

So I next googled *Lyubomirsky at al. 2005* and I found the paper Zilber was talking about, and . . . yeah, it has it all! An exploding pie chart, a couple of 3-d bar charts that would make Ed Tufte spin in his, ummm, Tufte’s still alive so I guess it would make him spin in his chair, they’re so bad. Oh, yeah, also a “longitudinal path model” with asterisks indicating low p-values. What more could you possibly desire? The whole paper made me happy, in a perverse way. By which I mean, it made me sad.

The good news, though, is that this 2005 paper does not seem so influential anymore. At least, when you google *happiness formula* it does not come up on the first page of listings. So that’s one thing we can be happy about.


  1. For whatever it’s worth, I thought that Lyubomirsky’s book had a lot of good advice in it, silly pie-charts notwithstanding.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Happiness is a warm puppy or gun depending on whether you follow Sparky Schulz or John Lennon.

  3. Alex Gamma says:

    Drive-by thread hijacking:
    May I just express my amazement about the nuance and depth kitty pictures can give to all manner of existential concepts from statistics and the world at large?

  4. Stephen says:

    I dont understand why the original “happiness formula” is meant to be silly. Its surely just a breakdown of how much variance in happiness is attributable to genetic vs environmental factors, no?

    Its like saying that “intelligence = 80% genetic + 20% circumstantial” or “height = 90% genetic + 10% circumstantial”. All these formulae are just summarizing known results from twin studies and behavioral genetics.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      What bugs me about these types of formulas is that they start with formulas for variance, then apply them to the variable itself (happiness, intelligence, height, etc.), rather than the variance.

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