Monday, July 19, 2010

The Exponential Growth of Happiness

I once read an article in The Sun (a magazine whose content, by the way, I usually judge for its tendency towards depressive and self-loathing introspection) which provoked my interest. It described happiness as a condition where it is possible to fall out of balance into either an upward- or downward-trending pattern of exponential change; that is, once one crosses a line one begins a chaotic descent or ascent into depression or radical joy. It must have been two years ago, or three—I know this because I recognized something in the text that I would not have recognized earlier. It has been three years, or three and a half, since I have been feeling this phenomenon myself. I am wildly and increasingly glad. 

Chaos—as a mathematical, biological, psychological, meteorological theory—describes instability, but not randomness. It explains fractals, radical weather, population booms and busts, and the variety in our fingerprints. It describes the universe. 

In the study of which I read, the psychology of contentment and the mathematics of macroeconomics collided when two researchers put their heads together. I wish I could tell you who, or when, but what I remember is that they found predictable unpredictability in their systems. They found chaos. 

It is possible, the article stated, to exist in psychological equilibrium. To have balance, small oscillations in mood and thinking which check each other and which cycle on an small scale within the spectrum of normal feeling; a little frustration here, a small enthusiasm here. This is where we usually hang—this is where the Prozac and Zoloft aims to keep us. And then there is illness—depression, in which small increases in negative thinking, a growth in unhappy moments, triggers an exponential curve in which the bad thoughts trigger one another and the snowball grows. It rolls, gathering momentum, plummeting down and down and down into the crevasse of perpetual sadness. This is predictable. It matches the mathematics of gathering thunderstorms and flowering broccoli. 

And then there is the math of happiness—the individuals who reveal a self-reinforcing, perpetual, exponential curve of increasing joy. Researchers have counted the delighted moments one must have in every day in order to fall up and up into this updraft of chaotic happiness, and I think they have come up with a number close to a dozen. Ten or twelve spontaneous little moments of joy in a given day, repeated over enough days, and you become unstable; your thought patterns change without voluntary effort, the math of chaotic systems takes over, and you float with happiness. You spiral up and up and up in a new and increasing pattern of positivity. Joy sweeps you away.

I'm there—I'm not crazy, but I'm feeling this feeling. Little things make me happy, and for every worry there are a hundred joys. My husband recently asked me to stop professing my love for this place, this valley, because I have become like a broken record in my expressions of appreciation for it. My breath is stolen each day by the sights, sounds, and feelings around me; the sun through the trees, R's little arms around my neck, my mule's bray in the morning. I look at my home, my neighborhood, my husband, and I can't help grinning like a fool. I am ridiculously and increasingly happy.

If you had asked me a few years ago to describe my life, I might have said, "I love my marriage, but . . . what of a career? I love my daughters, but . . . I can't wait for them to grow up. I love this house, but . . . the crazy bills!" Now, I say . . . "I love my marriage. I love my daughters. I love this house. I am SO happy."

And what has changed? I don't know, really. I still can't figure out how to earn enough. I still pull my hair out when the children tantrum. We still have too many bills. The only measurable changes have been the addition of few extra things that make me very happy—a mule that I love, new close friends, a daily writing habit. Psychologically speaking, I've established a new pattern of thinking. Without effort, and by surprise, I've become a system in chaos. 

I love this math. 


  1. Marnie, I'm reminded of close acquaintance, now content, spent many years allowing herself to be sucked down in the vortex of what she calls "faulty thinking."
    Your ability to put in writing ideas that are seemingly unrelated (to me) is admired and appreciated. These ideas are smartly insightful and clever, and though I understand intuitively that we each control our own reality, I still am still thinking about this post...

  2. What a great post. It reminds me to stop and let those little joys take up more space in my life.

    I look forward to reading more of your writing.

  3. Just stumbled again upon this old post, which is one of my own favorites. I'm so glad to see both of these old comments, and sorry I didn't write back at the time. Thank you, Susan and Kate, for your kind words!



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