Can Mathematics Explain Our Happiness?
Last month a friend/neighbor left a book in my mailbox. In the book was a note written by my friend on which he said he thought, after reading my blog, that I would find the book useful. The book is entitled, “Happier” and was written by Tal Ben-Sharar.
Mr. Ben-Sharar started teaching a positive psychology seminar at Harvard in 2002. In class, each week, the students explored what he believed to be the question of questions: how can we help ourselves and others – individuals, communities and society – become happier? His book is intended to be used as a self-help book – help with the understanding of the nature of happiness and to help the reader become happier. “Happier,” as I see it, is a result of the classes and the author’s thoughts regarding this important drive we all have – to be happy.
As I read the book, I was intrigued by the last section in the third chapter which is entitled, “Quantity and Quality.” I wrote a post last September in which I explained how the mental act of quantifying quality and qualifying quantity is a simple way of viewing mathematical thinking. (Please click here to visit that post.)
In the third chapter Mr. Ben-Sharar explains why, in order to be happy, we need to find both meaning and pleasure – to have both a sense of purpose and the experience of positive emotions. In the section “Quantity and Quality,” he explained how activities can give meaning and pleasure and how that does not mean we can be happy doing them, all of the time. Upon reflection, it does make perfect sense that if I do an activity I like all of the time, happiness doesn’t necessarily follow. But, I hadn’t really thought about it until now.
So let’s think a little deeper about quantity, quality and happiness. If I do an activity that I like over and over again, then the quantity of doing it will be great. What about the quality? I think that if I keep doing the same activity, no matter how much meaning and pleasure it gives me in the beginning, I will eventually find it to be less than a quality experience. Take, for example, the activity of eating my wife’s spanokopita. It is a greek spinach pie that I really like. Though I really like it, if I would eat it everyday, I’m sure the enjoyment of eating it would lessen.
For another personal example, suppose I spend all of my waking time with my wife. I sincerely do enjoy spending time with my wife, but I also need time to myself. If I spent all of my time with only one person, no matter who that person is or how much I love her, I’m sure my happiness would decrease.
Now, just because I don’t want to spend all of my time with one person, doesn’t mean I love the person any less. It simply means that as I increase the quantity, the quality isn’t necessarily better. The point is, as I raise the quantity of an activity that gives me meaning and pleasure, eventually my happiness tends to decrease.
Mr. Ben-Sharar states, near the end of the section, that the best method of maximizing our levels of happiness is trial and error, paying attention to the quality of our inner experiences. I think he is addressing that most fundamental concept of human thought – symmetry.
We need to pay attention to whether we have too much or too little of any activity that has meaning and pleasure. In this case, the “too much” and “too little” would refer to quantity and the “meaning and pleasure” refers to quality. Therefore, if mathematics is the mental act of quantifying quality and qualifying quantity, then using mathematics can not only help explain our happiness, but also help make us happier. Wow!
I’m looking forward to your happy or sad comment. :-)