We all want to be happy. That much is obvious. Figuring out how to be happy, particularly on a consistent basis, is a challenge on a whole other level. That’s why we bury ourselves in self-help books and motivational quotes, hoping to uncover some magic bullet, some happiness equation that can explain everything.

If I just do this thing, I’ll be happy. And even as we come to realize that the dangling carrot isn’t enough, we still want answers. Just tell me what to do. Just tell me how to be happy. I’m right there with you, and I turned to YouTube of all places for some guidance.

Lowered Expectations?

Last fall, vlogger Casey Neistat summarized his take on the matter, particularly in the context of vlogging and social media, in the form of his happiness equation:

Happiness equals reality minus expectation

If you visit some random restaurant during a road trip and are delightfully surprised by how good the food is, you’re probably going to be pretty happy. Your expectations were low and the reality of the situation was high. Conversely, if you visit a much-hyped restaurant and the food is “only” pretty good, you’re probably going to be disappointed.

It’s like the Law of Jante. Your happiness can increase one of two ways: either you improve your reality or you lower your expectations. And social media, with its powerful ability to tempt feelings of comparison against the curated portrayal of other people’s lives, remarkably elevates those expectations. You’re unhappy because your reality doesn’t match up to these fabricated expectations.

This also relates to hedonic adaptation, or the sense that what was once fantastic and incredible quickly becomes the new normal. And then we yearn for more, better, faster, because we lose sight of all the great things we already have in our lives. We take them for granted.

Embedded above is the Casey Neistat video where he explores his concept. If you want to skip the Elon Musk portion, skip ahead to about 3:28 where he starts talking about how “comparison is the thief of joy.”

Fighting the Drain?

Chances are you’ve never heard of Nathaniel Drew, as he obviously has not achieved the same level of Internet fame as Casey Neistat. I stumbled across his channel the other day and was drawn to a video he made about burnout (and another on how much money he makes on YouTube). He’s making a go at becoming a full-time YouTuber and he’s still very much in the early stages.

He reminds me a lot of Matt D’Avella, director of the Netflix documentary Minimalism with Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn. D’Avella also happens to be a successful YouTuber who champions an “intentional” and minimalist way of living. For Nathaniel, the relevant happiness equation looks a little something like this:

Joy – Drain = Current State of Wellbeing

To him, “joy” isn’t some blanket concept encompassing everything that makes him happy. It’s more about the enthusiasm that he feels when doing the things that he loves to do (making videos and connecting with people). That enthusiasm serves as fuel. It provides a sense of purpose and direction.

“Drain” then consists of things you hate doing, people you hate being around, and neglecting self-care. In other words, if you’re doing a lot of what you love and very little of what you don’t, chances are that your “current state of wellbeing” (as he puts it) is positive. If your trudging through TPS reports when you’d rather be fishing, then this happiness calculation shows you’re probably unhappy.

Some “drain” is necessary. Most people don’t enjoy cleaning their bathroom or filling out their income tax return, but you’ve still got to do it. The challenge, then, is finding enough “joy” to counteract that “drain.” Easier said than done, I’m sure.

And here’s Nathaniel’s video. If you want to skip ahead to the equation and the subsequent explanation, it starts at around 2:38.

Happiness Is the Journey?

Of course, try as we might to simplify the matter, happiness is not so simple. It’s far more complex than that. It can’t be reduced down to a simple equation or formula.

I keep going back to this, even though I wrote it more than ten years ago. Life is a song, not a race. In much the same way, maybe happiness is not a destination; rather, it’s the journey. Instead of trying to “get” happy or “hack” our way to happiness, perhaps we need to think about it in an entirely different way.

As one a cappella-singing paper salesman once put it, “I wish there was a way to know you’re in ‘the good old days’ before you’ve actually left them.” To this end, maybe we just need to choose to be happy where we are, how we are, when we are. Maybe happiness is not an end product at all. Maybe it’s the way.