A simple formula to explain happiness

There’s an ancient samurai tradition that is meant to develop resilience, improve mental fortitude, and enhance your killer instinct. It’s called the misogi. By deliberately leaving your comfort zone, you can stretch limits of possibility and ultimately re-wire the pathways in your brain. I heard about this banal idea through an unlikely source – the mop-haired and boyish Kyle Korver of the NBA Cleveland Cavaliers. Each year, Korver and his crew of physical misfits dream up a challenge for themselves: schleping large rocks underwater for four straight hours or stand-up paddleboarding (Korver’s first time, mind you) for 25 miles in open water. So I texted a few of my homies and we came up with our own misogi: 1,000 burpees over a 24 hour period.

And we completed the challenge, albeit with numerous dad-like injuries and to the bewilderment of both our wives and kids. But as ambitious strivers, always looking for a new challenge – a streeeeeeeetch goal – the misogi felt like a strange badge of honor and validation that we had the ability to bend reality to our wills.

All about the stretch goal

I begin each morning by going through my Omnifocus to-do list and to come up with the day’s mini-misogi. I pick 10 tasks (both big and small), and without fail mange to under-estimate how long each task will take, over-estimate my ability to focus, and somehow forget how many one-off requests I’ll encounter. As the day winds down, I return to the list only to find a three of them checked off. I fight the urge to beat myself up, yet bring that residual disappointment back to my wife and kids. I then mentally count down the minutes until everyone goes to bed, so that I can hop back on the laptop to get the dopamine hit of one more checked off task (and that wonderful swoosh sound). #MisogiFail. Every. Damn. Day.

Can you really bend reality to your will?

Wait But Why blogger Tim Urban introduced me to formula to help explain this pernicious cycle. It’s really simple:


So each day, my expectations (10 units) face off with my reality (3 units) resulting in negative 7 units of happiness. Forthcoming podcast guest and psychology professor Molly Crockett described her own productivity system, one influenced by her own research on the brain’s ability to form habits.

Each morning, Molly takes a fresh sheet of paper and divides it into two columns: Hard and Easy. She then picks two tasks, one in each category. TWO!!!! She completes both, plus an additional few more. Here’s Molly’s math: reality (4) minus exceptions (2), equals positive 2 units of happiness. (To my math geeks, please don’t try to unitize Molly and my respective productivity to see who’s net-positive. It won’t work, I tried!)

I then spoke to blogger and podcaster Sarah Peck who discussed how this lens could have been applied to her own dating experience. Years ago, Sarah had just broken off an engagement and started online dating. She was struggling to meet Mr. Right when a friend suggested that she list the ten attributes she was looking in a future mate. Once she did that, the friend had her pick three. Now, I’ve never met Mr. Sarah Peck, but for argument’s sake (and no shade thrown) let’s say he had five of these attributes. Here’s Sarah’s math: reality (5) minus exceptions (2), equals positive 3 units of happiness.

I’m bout dat BHAG

Now I’m expecting some blowback from you guys. This is a community of doers and strivers – we don’t set the bar artificially low just so we can leap over it. And I’m with you fam, I’m all for the proverbial BHAG. But I think the goals require some deep introspection (in fact, this is why I prefer systems). Take my Omnifocus example: If I’m constantly falling short by negative seven, it doesn’t mean that I’m not ambitious. It just means I’m delusional about my abilities (which actually detracts from my ambition). And the longer term-effect may be envy and unshakeable feelings of inadequacy.

I’m a numbers guy and so I’m not done with Urban’s formula. I’m going to propose two additions:


RadReaders are hard enough on themselves, we don’t need to saddle ourselves with the added burden of our peers or societal expectations. Here’s one expectation that’ll make this math pretty clear: the two month’s salary expectation. And here’s the final adjustment:


Trust the process

For the longest time, I over-indexed on things I could control. But this addition to the formula helps separate the process from the outcome. Public speaking (an activity more feared than death itself!) is a perfect example where worry and anxiety (i.e. things you can’t control) exceed your preparation (which you can control). Everyone’s experienced the ensuing mental agitation. Once again, this doesn’t mean abandoning your resolve to deliver a banger of a presentation, instead we can borrow from one of our great teachers Frank Ostaseski: Have a plan, hold it lightly.

So the next time you begin to embark on one of your daily misogis, try this. Take a deep breath. Explore your reality and your expectations. And if you’re still lost, a simple spreadsheet can reorient you back to your True North.

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