The Algebra of Happiness - Critical summary review - Scott Galloway

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The Algebra of Happiness - critical summary review

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Self Help & Motivation

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: The Algebra of Happiness: Notes on the Pursuit of Success, Love, and Meaning

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 0593084195

Publisher: Portfolio

Critical summary review

In May 2018, Scott Galloway, professor of marketing at the New York University Stern School of Business, chose to upload to YouTube an abridged version of his traditional, year-ending, three-hour lecture on the subject of happiness. The video garnered almost a million views in the first 10 days alone. 

Based on it, Galloway’s 2019 bestseller “The Algebra of Happiness” shares not only its title, but also the introduction and many of the main ideas. The lecture, the video and the book all stem from a single question: “If one were to boil down the formula for happiness into a finite number of equations, what would they be?” Get ready to find out!

Happiness is a quadratic polynomial

Happiness is neither a constant nor a linear function, but rather a quadratic polynomial. To translate that into a language non-math majors will understand, happiness is an arc, the bottom part of a circle cut in half. 

We usually start our lives off pretty high, in terms of happiness. Our childhood, teens, and college years are pure magic: “the stuff of Han Solo, beer, road trips, random sexual encounters, and self-discovery.” Then, once we graduate, life usually becomes heavy and starts going downward – and it doesn’t get any easier until our mid-40s. Coupled with the realization that the life we’ve dreamed of is the life of the few, these two decades are riddled with a lot of work, immeasurable amounts of stress, and even the inevitable deaths of our loved ones. 

But then, in our 50s, things take a turn for the better. By then, our past experiences have taught us not only to value our skills and talents, but also our experiences and the world around us. The wonders of nature start looking like wonders indeed, and even tragedies start making sense in the grand scheme of things – of which we tend to get a good idea only after our children start looking and acting like us. For our children to inherit the world, someone must leave it behind. Recognizing that our time on earth is limited, we start smelling the roses and affording ourselves the happiness we deserve.

The lesson here is quite simple. In life, there are good times at the beginning and at the end – and a few difficult and messy ones in the middle. Persevere. “If in adulthood you find you’re stressed, even unhappy at times,” writes Galloway, “recognize that this is a normal part of the journey and just keep on keepin’ on. Happiness is waiting for you.”

Ratios: of personal life to work, and of sweat to sweat

Everybody knows somebody who’s got it all. They are not only successful and revered in their career, but also have a picture-perfect family, play in a band and volunteer at several humanitarian organizations on the weekends. Contrary to what some self-help books will tell you, these people are not mythical creatures, but inhabitants of the real world. However, they are even rarer than unicorns; they are the exception. Your happiness starts when you assume you are not one of them.

Unless you are a genius – or are somehow sure that you will be blessed with a lot of luck down the line – balance should not be your priority in your youth. Unlike the have-it-alls, balance when establishing a career is a myth; what is not is that later-life balance is “a function of the lack of it” in your 20s and 30s. 

Those years are not going to be easy. Looking back, just like Galloway, you won’t remember anything but “late-nighters” at your office and deadlines met at the last second. But, like many other things, balance is a trade-off and there’s a price you have to pay if you want to have more of it in your life. If you cover more ground than your peers in your 20s and 30s, you’ll have the luxury to relax afterward. Conversely, if you relax in your youth, chances are you’ll fall behind the fast and the persevering people later in life. Don’t expect to find a user manual or a shortcut, and remember that strategy and endurance are more important than talent, when establishing a career.

And that brings us to another basic equation of happiness. In Galloway’s words, “The ratio of time you spend sweating to watching others sweat is a forward-looking indicator of your success.” In other words, nobody stops you from watching ESPN every night and all day Sunday, but don’t expect you’ll ever live the lives of the ones you’re watching. On the contrary, prepare for “a future of anger and failed relationships.”

Some basic equations of success

As defined by most dictionaries, success is the achieving of wanted or hoped-for results. Some wants and hopes are universal, while others are uniquely related to your character and being. Either way, to be successful at anything, they are prerequisites. After all, how would you know if you’ve reached the finish line if you’ve never bothered to draw that line? The following few equations should help you draw it right away:

  • Opportunity is a function of density. Most economists believe that “two-thirds of economic growth over the next fifty years will be in supercities.” If you want to succeed, try to get a zip code in one of them. It’s not rocket science: the more people there are in one place, the more chances for you.
  • Credentials + zip code = money. Zip code is one of two things you’d want to pay special attention to while you’re young; the other is higher education. Galloway calls supercities and higher education “the peanut butter and chocolate of economic velocity.” His advice is simple: “While you’re young, get credentialed and get to a city. Both get difficult, if not impossible, as you get older.”
  • Serendipity is a function of courage. Nothing wonderful will ever happen to you without taking a risk and subjecting yourself to rejection. There is no destiny or providence, just courageous people willing to jeopardize their comfort in pursuit of something worthier.
  • Resilience / Failure = Success. Everyone experiences failures and tragedies; only successful people, though, are able to mourn and move on. This is the definition of resilience.

Three equations about money (and other things)

Success is often measured in terms of money for a reason: money allows you to buy it. However, being rich is something very different from earning a lot of money. Find out how, through these three simple mathematical statements:

  • Passive income / burn = wealth. If you earn $50,000 and spend $30,000 in a year, you’re rich. On the contrary, you’ll end up poor if you earn $1,000,000 and spend $1,100,000. So, get a feel for what your burn is early, and find ways to earn more than that. Be an adult. “Young people are 100 percent focused on their earnings,” quips Galloway. “Adults also focus on their burn.”
  • Equity = wealth. You’ll never get rich with just your salary, because you will always raise or lower your lifestyle to match it. That’s how you are built after millions of years of evolution. So, look for a job where you will be forced to save – either through a retirement plan or, better yet, options on the firm’s equity. And, as soon as possible, buy property or stocks. But don’t try to play the stock market: you are not smart enough to do that. Instead, bet on it, and you’ll be just fine.
  • Compound interest is an exponential function. If there was a magic box where you could put $1,000 now and be sure to take out $25,000 in 40 years, would you do it? Of course you would! The good news is that such a magic box exists in many places, enabled by a little something called compound interest. The math boils down to simple advice: invest your money early and do it often, and you’ll retire rich. What’s even better is that this logic is applicable in other areas of life. Mothers know this, and you should too. Invest a few minutes every day in a relationship, and in return, you’ll get a faithful friend or a life-long marital partner. It’s that simple.
  • Car < lion. People underestimate the long-term positive effect of experiences and overestimate the amount of happiness material things bring to them. Therefore, invest in experiences, not in things.

The true language of love is math

Success and money matter, but love matters much more. You can have everything in life and yet, if you don’t have love, it will probably feel as if you have nothing. In Galloway’s wording, “love and relationships are the ends – everything else is just the means.” So, “the most important decision you’ll make is not where you work or who you party with, but who you choose to partner with for the rest of your life.”

Just like bad marriage detrimentally affects all other aspects of life – in many cases, even after it ends – good marriage is advantageous in too many ways to list. To select just the vital few, happily married people live longer, have better physical and mental health, and are wealthier and more content with life than the rest of the population. This is all the inevitable result of the basic equation of love, one that goes even against the fundamentals of math: in love, one plus one is not equal, but greater, than two. 

Being in a healthy marriage leads to shared expenses and responsibilities, better decisions, streamlined choices, and larger investments for the two people (both separately and as a couple). Nothing other than a good marital partnership can give you that in life. However, as too many people know quite well, having a spouse doesn’t mean having a partner, and finding a good partner is one of the most difficult things in life. It doesn’t have to be, if you ground your search for a partner in a simple equation: A + V + M = P2. Or, in words, “affectation plus values plus money equals partner squared.” Let’s break down the equation into its components:

  • Affectation. If there’s no physical attraction between two people, love isn’t going to last. Blame it on our biology if you’d like to, but take it into serious consideration nevertheless.
  • Values. Even though bad sex is 90% of a relationship, good sex is no more than 10%. This essentially means that although a passionless relationship won’t succeed, a passionate one won’t grow unless you build upon the affectation. This is a long process filled with compromises, but also general alignments on values like children, parenting, religion, proximity to parents, nature of sacrifices, and the management of responsibilities. 
  • Money. The most important value for alignment. According to many studies, the number one source of marital acrimony is financial stress. Have this conversation sooner rather than later with your partner. Debate on your expectations about money and decide who contributes what and to what extent. If you don’t, you’re both setting yourself up for a financial problem of wide-ranging impact: divorce.

Final notes

Life may be too complicated to be described in a single mathematical formula, but apparently – as Scott Galloway skillfully demonstrates in “The Algebra of Happiness” – how to live life can be summarized in a few equations. 

Extracted from his own life and coupled with hand-drawn illustrations, these equations are not only memorable, but also make things simpler for anyone unsure about their next step, or overwhelmed by the difficulty of making a non-reversible choice.

A lovely short book and an even better graduation gift.

12min tip

To be a good marital partner, express affectation and desire as often as possible and, rather than keeping score, wipe slates clean regularly. Finally, don’t ever let your partner be cold or hungry – those conditions aggravate fights.

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Who wrote the book?

Scott Galloway is an American professor, serial entrepreneur, podcaster, public speaker, and bestselling author. He teaches digital marketing and brand strategy at the New York University Stern School of Business and is the a... (Read more)

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