The ways we measure success and happiness are fundamentally broken.
We measure individual success by looking at someone’s salary or the number of books they’ve written and speeches they’ve given, not days with their family and smiles they brought to the people they cared about. We measure collective economic success by looking at missiles and guns produced, not by seeing if every year people are seeing less stress and experiencing more prosperity. We measure the success of our police departments by how much they reduce crime, not how much they make people feel safe or how much they are getting at the root problems of violence and dissatisfaction that cause crime to begin with.
It’s time that we as a society measure not the amount of stuff we can produce (that ends up in landfills) but start measuring happiness. We need to start thinking about happiness as a metric, as an output that we want to measure in a more granular way. Our national goal should be to see people fulfilled, satisfied, happy, and healthy.
So far, nothing I’m saying is really that controversial conceptually. In practice, though, it’s really hard to measure happiness.
How do you measure how satisfied someone’s soul is? Do you use an MRI and see how their brain reacts? Do you ask them to fill out a survey and trust them not to lie? Do you look at their smiles, the way that they are eager and happy?
When you start measuring productivity, you realize that some people produce a lot more than others.
As a professional writer, I can do projects in an hour with no difficulty that others would stress about completing within a day. In other words, I’m at least twenty-four times as efficient as some other people, people who may in fact be perfectly talented and intelligent. But if I were to try to fix my car, I’d probably find that if I could even do it I’d take ten times as long as a professional mechanic and would end up cursing quite a lot more. Nor am I alone in this regard. From the software industry to visual arts, the best people have quantifiable output that’s just faster than everyone else’s by a huge margin.
I used to think that happiness was different. Sure, some people were depressed or had serious psychological issues. But I thought most people reacted to the world the way that I did: Waking up most days eager to face the day, eager to explore and create and share.
I have since found that I was utterly wrong.
So, let me introduce what I call the Abd-ar Rahman Metric. Named after Abd-ar Rahman the III, Emir and Caliph of Cordoba who was a king at the same age that I was still bumbling through college, this metric asks you, “How many days of pure and genuine happiness have you had?”
Really think about that question for a second.
Abd-ar Rahman the III was one of the most powerful people in the world. During his life, he became one of the heads of a major world religion, Islam. He ruled a whole nation for more than thirty years, from 929 to 961 CE. Many people dream of having a fraction of the kind of power and influence that this man had.
But at the end of his life, this is what he had to say:
“I have now reigned above fifty years in victory or peace…. Riches and honours, power and pleasure, have waited on my call… I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot: they amount to Fourteen: – O man! place not thy confidence in this present world!”
His number on the Abd-ar Rahman the III Metric is fourteen. In his entire life, he had fourteen days where he felt pure and genuine happiness.
I’m twenty-eight years old as I write this article. Even removing years in my childhood that my memory is incomplete for and being quite conservative, my score on this metric is in the thousands. Let’s say that my score 3650, roughly every other day of the twenty years I can recall being blessed with pure and genuine happiness.
I can’t speak for any of you reading this, but I suspect most of you have had more than fourteen days of genuine happiness. One friend of mine, a person who has had an extremely difficult life in many respects, reported that she at least had a day of pure and genuine happiness on every Christmas, putting her score at least at 25.
My average month contains more days of pure and genuine happiness than the entire life of a man whose worldly power and wealth beggars mine.
I may have to worry about making rent sometimes or dealing with student loans, but I will experience days where the beauty in the world makes me weep for joy. I love the world so much, I want to holler it from the mountaintops.
The secret to my happiness is my belief. I have convictions. I believe this world matters, I believe action in it matters. I believe heroic struggles to improve our world are in and of themselves noble, no matter if they fail or succeed.
I do have some advantages Abd-ar Rahman the III didn’t have. Even with all of his money and power, I have a car while he had horses. I have better medical care. I have better entertainment: Movies, video games, television shows, and music on demand. I have the ability to communicate with people across the globe instantly. Many, maybe even most, people today enjoy a level of material safety and prosperity that no one in Abd-ar Rahman’s time could imagine.
So it is possible that some of the advantages that you and I have over this king have been because we’ve seen a thousand years of technological, social and economic development. Even people who are struggling to get by in the industrialized world still have marvels that kings couldn’t own a century ago, because those marvels didn’t exist.
But I think we can all see that the difference between you, me and Rahman cannot be just a matter of the fact that we can watch Arrow on Blu-Ray and he couldn’t.
The Buddha and Socrates, two men from massively different cultures, both came at the same realization: The way to happiness, to what Socrates called eudaemonia and what the Buddha called nirvana, is the cultivation of the spirit.
Every single person’s path toward that cultivation is different. In my opinion, that path can include the usage of modern techniques such as psychotropic medication.
I think that the secret is invulnerable belief. Invulnerable belief is my artistic calling card.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe even Socrates and the Buddha were wrong about the specific mechanisms for happiness.
But what’s clear is that Abd-ar Rahman the III did have wisdom when he told us to not look for happiness in the things of this world.
Cars, houses, fame, the approbation of millions, occupying a high position in society, the respect of peers… these don’t lead to days of pure and genuine happiness.
We as a society have to start figuring out what does.