The Happiness Equation

December 19, 2023

David Scharf, CCA President

Let me begin by addressing the title for this blog post. Yes, I will indeed reveal an actual mathematical formula that solves for happiness. But first we need to talk about butterflies. A remarkable species of butterfly native to Thailand. 

What is special about these butterflies? They are luminous! Let me set the scene for you. As the sun sets and darkness descends, thousands of these butterflies make their way down to the river where they begin flashing in random bursts of radiant light. It is a myriad of unorganized solo acts – each butterfly lighting up with no regard for their fellow fly. At first. But then a butterfly lights in unison with its neighbor fly. And soon there are small clusters of butterflies lighting in harmony. It is only a short hour before all the butterflies on the riverbank are shining together in perfect synchronicity.*  One scientist describes this as “the happiest moment in the life” of these butterflies.** 

Lucky butterflies. But what about those of us who don’t naturally emit sparks of light? Where is our shining moment of synchronicity? I believe we all experience such moments. Allow me to share a personal experience from a race in New York City’s Central Park. Typically, your race number is printed on an attachable bib. However, this race printed your race number directly onto the official red race shirt. As the race unfolded, runners naturally gravitated towards those with similar paces. As our paces slowly aligned so did our breathing and heart rates so that we began to breathe and beat in unison. In this uniform sea of red it felt as though all our hearts were beating as one. This sense of synchronicity was more than fleeting happiness – it bordered on the transcendent. 

So what is the formula for happiness? According to Eduardo Punset, here is the equation.*** 

Happiness = E (M + Q + P) / (R + B)

Were the butterflies in Thailand and the runners in New York happy because they knew this formula? Or were they happy because they experienced a sublime sense of synchronicity? 

You probably already guessed that I would connect this to our role as consulting actuaries. As actuaries, we love formulas – the crazier the notation the better! And the mathematical and analytical work we do is of vital importance. Yet, as consultants, we know that our role extends beyond the equations. An equation is of little value without knowing how to apply it for a specific situation. Communication and context are key to the consulting actuary. Qualitative considerations, practical implications and ethical deliberations resist a formula-driven approach.

Just as the happiness formula will be of little help without knowing the real-life experience of happiness, an actuarial formula will be of little help without knowing the real-life experience of those we advise.

*I am blurring the lines – purposely – between synchronization and synchronicity (and using the latter term).
**Punset, Eduardo. The Happiness Trip: A Scientific Journey. Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2007, p. 87.
***Punset, p.149.  The variables are defined on p. 147.