The formula for happiness —not so complicated after all?

The Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss defined happiness in a formula in his book Life’s Philosophy published 1999

Næss was 88 years old 1999 and writes in Life’s Philosophy that the well-being, W experienced by a person, is equal to the square of passion, P that we experience when we do something, divided by the sum of our sufferings S, bodily and mental sufferings. Since the passion is squared (P*P) in the formula a small increase in passion will make a big impact on well-being and low passion will give low well-being regardless of the level of suffering.

This means that Næss believes that a high degree of passion (or glow or fervour) creates well-being even if we experience suffering at the same time. If the passion is great, we know that we can withstand great stress both mentally and physically. If the passion and glow for doing a thing is high then we can withstand strain and suffering. Næss says “if we notice that something or other results in a more intense glow in our lives, we must take advantage of these circumstances.”

Næss believes that this ability is largely linked to age: “Many older people have a great ability to tackle problems head on and to see what is most important in life. Many young and middle-aged people realize this late because they do not take the time to seriously question their priorities. The decisive factor is not exactly what you spend your time on, the important thing is how you get involved, and what effort you put into it. The art of living is being able to do small things in a big way.

Published by kenward1904

Arne Næss was a very special person and philosopher. He was born 1912 in Oslo, Norway. When he was 27 years old he became the youngest person to be appointed full professor at the University of Oslo and the only professor of philosophy in the country at the time. He was also a noted mountaineer, who led the expedition that made the first ascent of Tirich Mir (7,708 m) in 1950.

Næss combined a ecological vision with non-violence and on several occasions participated in direct action events. He is maybe best known for his invention of the term “deep ecology” which looks at the inherent worth of all living beings regardless their usefulness for humans. It also wants to restructure society according to that idea.

Do we get happier when we get older? Yes! The “U-bend” of happiness shows precisely that.

Image from The Economist

“The U-bend” is the name of the effect that shows that you are happy when you are young and when you are old but unhappiest in your middle age, more specifically at 47 years of age. After becoming 18 years old you start to feel more and more unhappy, this continues until you are 47 years old, after which you are starting to feel better and better again. At 65 you feel as happy as when you were 18. This supports Næss’ idea that we experience more well-being as we get older. We know better what to spend time and effort on, rather than worrying about finding the “right” thing to do.

No one has been able to explain why is 47 the most unhappy age? Could it be connected to that at 47 you end the period of small children at home (your youngest kid is 14 years old on average when you are 47). After that you have no small kids at home any longer and maybe that makes you happier again, after 15 years of feeling low?

How come you get happier the older you get? Is it because you find passion in what you are doing as Næss suggests, or is it something else? What about the usage of antidepressant medicine? Statistics show that the number of persons using antidepressants is increasing as you get older.

National Center for Health Statistics, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2015–2018.

So is that the explanation for old age happiness? We feel happy when we are old because of pills? Nope, it is not, scientists have found that Chimps and Orangutans also have mid-life crises. A study indicates that, like humans, the great apes go through a nadir of happiness in middle age.

Weiss, A. et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA (2012).

So then it is not about our use of antidepressants. Was Næss right then, its all about passion? Or could it be that the formula is just complicated intellectual rubbish? Maybe happiness has a much easier explanation? Albert Camus wrote:

« J’ai remarqué que chez certains êtres d’élite il y a une sorte de snobisme spirituel à croire que l’argent n’est pas nécessaire au bonheur.“

“I have noticed that in some elite beings there is a kind of spiritual snobbery in believing that money is not necessary for happiness.”

Quote is from Camus’ first novel A happy death written 1936 but not published until after his death in 1971.

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

Professor in entrepreneurship, PhD in Nuclear Physics. Entrepreneur and researcher. From Stockholm Sweden

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