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On Balance

Or happiness, and bad math

By Molly L. Roberts, Crimson Staff Writer

This fall, I realized I was happy.

It didn’t come as a shock. Though I’ve had sad times, I’ve never really been a sad person. I’ve even analyzed my own happiness and announced it—to my friends, to my family, and to myself. But there was something cleaner to this realization. I didn’t need to announce it, and more important than that, I didn’t need to explain it. I just felt it.

I spent three years of college playing mathy games with my happiness. I can remember saying out loud once junior spring, on the phone with my parents, that something made me happy “on balance”: it made me happy more often than it made me sad. Therefore, it was good for me. I was talking about a romantic relationship, but that doesn’t much matter. I was leaning on the same logic many of us apply to our extracurricular activities and even our friendships.

But something that makes us happy “on balance” is not always good. And the reasoning behind saying it’s good is itself quite bad.

A friend suggested the other day that it’s possible to map out two happiness trajectories for each of us. First, there’s our day-to-day, hour-to-hour happiness. This curve oscillates. It leaps when we get a check-plus on a problem set, and plummets when Quincy dining hall is out of waffle fries. But its bounds are set by the second curve.

This curve is flatter. It represents our longer-term happiness. It might slope slightly down, or slightly up, and it might change direction every now and then, but it’s much more stable than the first. And even if something makes the first curve jump up more often than it makes the curve dips down, even if those jumps are higher than the dips are low, there’s a still a chance that something else—some alternative class, maybe, or hobby, or relationship—would push the second curve, slowly but surely, toward greater y-values if we’d take the gamble on making a change.

Another way to look at this, I think, is opportunity cost: Even if a relationship or activity makes us happy more often than it makes us sad, we don’t know whether a different way of spending our time would make us even happier until we try it. A different way of spending time might mean a direct trade-off, such as switching one hookup out for another or ditching The Crimson for the Advocate and model Congress for model UN. It also might just mean more unscheduled hours of the day.

For instance, it turns out that even though my relationship made me happy more often than it made me sad, the freedoms that come with not being in a relationship at this point in my life make me even happier even more often and less sad less often. I’m not seeing someone different—but I’m spending more time with my roommates, on my classes, and in the gym.

It’s worth acknowledging that my math here is horrible—nonsensical at best and nonexistent at worst. According to another Crimson columnist, I’m ignoring a compelling (and mathematically sound) argument about the low expected value of any relationship. Is mine the proper use of the term “opportunity cost”? Does it make sense that the longer-term curve I’ve invented can impose boundaries on the shorter-term one? What units am I using to quantify my happiness?

But perhaps that’s missing the point. Perhaps the task is not to calculate what situations would optimize our happiness, but rather to avoid any sort of calculation. The moment we begin to justify keeping something in our lives is the moment we should begin to understand that, maybe, it shouldn’t be there after all.

We’re using the idea of balance when we shouldn’t be balancing at all. We're looking for happiness to cancel out sadness and achieve a net-neutral state of mind, when we should be seeking out happiness for happiness' sake. We’re treating life like problem sets when we should really stop and smell the waffle fries.

Molly L. Roberts ’16, a former Crimson editorial chair, is an English concentrator in Cabot House.

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