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The happiness curve

The happiness curve

To all of you who feel that your life is going down the toilet, I bring a message of hope from the happiness experts: Things will get better once you pass through the U-Bend.

To all you unmarried men or married women out there; to all you workers who "accidentally" opened your colleague's pay slips only to discover they're getting paid more than you; to all you lottery winners who have yet to find the time to spend all the dough; in short, to all of you who feel that your life is going down the toilet, I bring a message of hope from the happiness experts: Things will get better once you pass through the U-Bend. I'm not making it up. That's what it's called - a U-Bend - taking its name from the shape that most long-term studies of happiness take on when plotted according to age. In surveys, people describe themselves as happy when they're in their teens, very happy when they're through their mid-fifties, and relatively unhappy during what scientists describe as the "poopy" years in between.

Surveys of younger children probably would find that they're very happy, too, if only the subjects didn't eat the pencils.

Incidentally, according to one leading happiness expert, Andrew Oswald, a professor of economics at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, having little pencil eaters has "no effect on happiness" - a finding which may surprise many exhausted parents, but which might perhaps be explained by the fact that, at the age most people have children, most people's happiness is already circling the statistical drain anyway, ready for the long and painful slide through life's U-Bend, which doesn't begin its upwards journey towards happiness until the mid-40s.

Still, the experts say that, short of covering yourself in grease and diving in headlong, there are several things you can do to ease your passage through what (in a family-friendly publication such as this) can only be described at the "Scatological Straits" of life.

Mathematically speaking, the most important thing you can do is make sure you're paid more than your colleagues. This advice follows the well-known formula U = u(y/y*) where u is your starting level of happiness before you look at your pay slip, y is the dollar figure on your pay slip, y* is the dollar figure on your colleague's pay slip, and U is the level of happiness you achieve once you do the maths.

For instance, if you start with a happiness factor of 5 (which represents the very bottom of the U-Bend, where all the toe nail clippings accumulate) and you get paid $3000, whereas your colleague gets paid $5000, you can see from the formula that: U = 5($3000/$5000), which if I remember my high-school algebra, comes to approximately $1,276,538 - a figure which happens to be precisely the other way that you can reduce the pain of the U-Bend years: win the lottery.

Due to the problems economists have doing regression analysis of happiness based purely on wealth, one of the few things they appear to know for certain about money and happiness is that having a sudden windfall of money leads to happiness.

It might also be that accumulating money over time makes people happy, but when it's not a windfall it's harder for economists to analyse. For instance, it might be that wealthy people only score higher happiness factors because they can afford long-term botox treatments, and it's actually the number of wrinkles, |rather than the amount of wealth, that's related to happiness.

Studies show that suddenly getting wealthier, however, correlates directly to an improvement in happiness scores, although mysteriously it takes between one and two years for the top-line windfall to trickle down to bottom-line happiness. This, according to Professor Oswald, is a "puzzle", although I have a few theories of my own, most of which relate to how many months (precisely 18.5, according to my calculations) it would take to eat through $1,276,538 worth of pizza.

Thus, in order to be truly happy you must ensure that you either: a) only ever steam open the pay slips of the kid who's just in the office doing work experience (division by zero is a wonderful experience, mathematically speaking); or, b) if you steam open someone else's pay slip, you must take careful note of any bank account details you find. Technically speaking, internet bank transfers, even when you initiate them yourself, still count as "windfalls", and stealing money from your colleagues has the double benefit of "a" and "b" combined.

Either that, or when you feel yourself getting sucked into the U-Bend, you can just hold your breath, smear yourself in goose-fat, and hope that you can get through the thing as painlessly as possible. Although I hear porpoise oil works just as well, and does wonders for the wrinkles while you're at it.

John Davidson's column, "This Digital Life", appears in The Australian Financial Review. Contact him at jdavidson@afr.com.au

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