The Math of Everyday Happiness
Columnist Leigh Newman explains how figuring out a few crucial equations can equal long-term joy.
Sushi + Gummy Bears + Lilacs = Happy Birthday
I am not a birthday-party person. Inviting people over for a big gathering in honor of me feels embarrassing. And yet, I have noticed that people who are birthday-party people seem to know how to celebrate—not just others—but themselves. Two years ago, I decided I would try to learn from them. I thought, "What would make me happy on my birthday?" It was 8 a.m in the morning. I did not have the money to go to Paris. I did not have the energy to book a table at a happening restaurant where my kids would order french fries then knock over their ginger ales. I wanted to eat at home. But I did not want to cook, which is a skill that, sadly, my husband doesn’t possess. So: Sushi! You’re supposed to have a cake on your birthday, but I don’t like cake. So: Gummy bears! You’re also supposed to have streamers and balloons. But streamers and balloons feel like stuffing myself into frilly party dresses with patent shoes—at age 40. So: Lilacs!

Then I called my husband, who was able to purchase all this and arrive home by 7 p.m. and lay it out on the table. The party took 30 minutes. We ate. We sang a song. We blew out a candle on the gummy bears. And I felt great, not just because I got what I wanted, but because I had an equation that would make me feel festive about this one loaded, inevitable day of the year—and I could simply repeat it the next year. It was not a complex equation. Nobody at Princeton was going to invite me on staff or invite me out to a desert to experiment with molecules. It was the simple math of how to make myself happy. And it occurred to me that there are times when all of us need to have these kind of no-fail formulas, specific to our needs, fears and understanding of ourselves. So I came up with a few for those situations that crop up and challenge us, again and again.
(62 Episodes of True Blood + 1 Down Duvet) ÷ 2.5 Days = Monday Recovery
Let's say you are like me. I wake up 5 a.m. to get "free time" which means I exercise, or send emails, or write creatively (aka sleep on keyboard). Then I go work 9 to 10 hours a day. After that, my two kids need to eat, do homework and talk about things like "Who do you think is a faster runner? You or Daddy?" while sitting on the toilet for an hour, just to avoid going to bed. Somewhere after, they (finally) fall asleep; but before I (almost immediately) fall asleep, I read, hit "like" 600 times on Facebook and buy clothes online that don’t fit any of us but that we all wear because we're too overwhelmed to return them.

Your schedule may be different. One woman I know sleeps until 8 a.m., works all day, puts the kids to bed, then goes back to work from 9 to 11 p.m. Another takes care of her kids all day then works from 9 to 1 a.m. But regardless of the differences in schedules, most of us hit a Friday where we scream "No more!" For me this happens every six months. Then, like great old timber falling in a virgin forest, I topple into bed and line up four or five seasons of any show on Netflix or Apple TV. It doesn't matter which one: Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Walking Dead, True Blood, Gossip Girl, Glee. As long as I am swaddled in a soundproof, down duvet and not disturbed over two full days, plus Friday night, I can get up recovered on Monday morning and go on living my life. In a perfect world, we might say that we need to do less and avoid the whole burnout-meltdown cycle. But I can’t do less—and I hear the same thing from other women all the time—which is why all of us need this particular less-than-scientific formula, the one that lets us abandon multitasking, singletasking and anything other than pause, drool, repeat. (Note: Some women may have to put extra parentheses around the whole equation and subtract guilt.)
Me × 21 Meetings = Functional Calm
I have a rule—a very new one and tailored to my personal style of paralysis and panic. When I need to get a new job or move to a new place or do anything that I’m totally and absolutely nervous about doing, I have to set up 21 meetings. None of these meetings have to come to anything. Nobody has to offer me anything on the spot or hand me the secret to my existence. But we do have to talk about the goal at hand.

In common sense terms, what this process does is let me gather information and learn from outside sources. But what it also does is force me to do something, just at the very moment I'm sitting at my desk thinking, "What if I can’t get another job?" or "What if there are no houses we can afford—ever?" I don't have time for those kinds of thoughts; or, I have less time for them, at least, because I have to call somebody up and try to get them to go to coffee with me. The illusion of packed, high-power schedule—much like the illusion of decaf (which by the way does so have caffeine in it)—can be exceptionally calming. So much so that by meeting 22, I'm usually relaxed enough to make a decision—if not take action.
Two Equally Awkward People + One White Wine Spritzer + 2πr = Permission to Go Home
In my twenties, my way of dealing with packed cocktail parties was to sit in the nearest potted ficus (there are always potted indoor trees in large public rooms, but so rarely chairs). After I’d polished off three glasses of wine and gotten mulch stains on the back of my skirt, I would go home. Something had to be done, I knew—and that thing would not be that I would suddenly become more extroverted or chatty with strangers, because, in my case, that was not possible. Instead, when faced with intimidating social situations that might lead to valuable personal or professional connections, I now have a formula: Circle the room (the perimeter of a circle is 2π times the radius) with (one!) white wine spritzer and, in the process, bump into or knock the drink out of the hand of an equally awkward person, engage in conversation while apologizing and cleaning off her skirt, then go home with some kind of contact information from her. Inevitably, this works because awkward people are very easy to spot (look for: people trying to look busy or wrapped up in their own thoughts, which really means just standing alone by the buffet.) Further, they make the most interesting conversation because they are too befuddled to make witty banter. They just blurt out their true, undisguised thoughts and, in my totally biased opinion, honesty is always riveting.
Me - 17 Irrational, Emotional Flip-Out = What I'm Feeling About What Actually Happened
An irrational, emotional flip-out can be calling up the cable company and screaming at the customer service about the slow Internet connection. Or yelling at my husband about the ski rack he hasn't put on the car even though it's still summer. Or yelling at the kids about throwing water out of the bathtub. Or fixating on my neighbor who lives off a trust fund and never has to work and gets to stay home with her kids. Or throwing away half my closet because everything is lumpy and horrible on me. Or eating stale peanut brittle circa two Christmases past. Or—gulp— all of the above.

When these are removed, I no longer am able to work off a small portion of whatever is inside me (while alienating friends and family). Thus, I end up feeling very, very mad about the friend dying or very, very sad about the amazing promotion that didn’t work out. Neither of which are emotions I exactly want to have, but do let me examine what happened and how I might survive it. The upside is that this is the one equation in the world where, even if the answer is embarrassing or upsetting or not what anybody wants to hear at the time, it is always 100 percent right.

Leigh Newman is the deputy editor of and the author of Still Points North: One Alaskan Childhood, One Grown-up World, One Long Journey Home.

Next: 8 can't-quit quotes from swimmer Diana Nyad