To truly be happier, we need to redefine what success means

Neil Pasricha, author of “The Book of Awesome” and “The Happiness Equation” on how to practice happiness like any other habit

“The Happiness Equation” author Neil Pasricha

“The Happiness Equation” author Neil Pasricha pictured in his favourite bakery in Toronto. (Colin McConnell/Toronto Star/Getty)

In 2010, Toronto writer Neil Pasricha transformed his relentlessly upbeat blog, 1,000 Awesome Things, into the New York Times bestseller The Book of Awesome. Now the Queen’s University commerce grad and Harvard Business School alum has unveiled a followup, The Happiness Equation. It promises to help readers “want nothing, do anything, and have everything,” with advice on time management, career advancement, relationship-building and more. We talked with him about the importance of happiness, what true success looks like, and why you should never truly retire.

Your Book of Awesome series was very well received. Haven’t you already figured out the secret to happiness from writing those books?

I wish I had! The truth is, The Book of Awesome was about the observation of awesome. The Happiness Equation is the application of awesome.

This book answers questions that The Book of Awesome didn’t, which is how do we actually go about living this happy life? What are the tools, frameworks and ideas? What are the secrets we can learn? And what do we specifically need to do today?

I was tired of books with stories about generals, parables about mice, and endless scientific studies with numbers that could point any which way. I wanted something real, something practical, something I could hand to my child and say “This is an action book you can use to live a happy life right now.”

You do a lot of business speaking and consulting around the world and have met many high-profile leaders, billionaires included. You say in your book that many of them are unhappy. Why are these highly successful people unhappy?

Well, I think there’s a myth out there that you do great work, then you have big success, and then you’re happy. That’s the happiness model we’re all taught from a young age. Study really hard, get good grades, then…you’re happy! Or work really hard, get a promotion, then…you’re happy! But it turns out that model is totally backwards.

You actually need to be happy first, and then you do great work, and then you have big successes. Harvard Business Review reports that happy people are 31% more productive, have 37% higher sales, three times more creative, and 40% more likely to get a promotion in the next year.

The truth is we don’t invest in our happiness the way we invest in, say, going to the gym. Most of us have a gym membership or go for morning runs or something similar, but we’re not yet thinking the same way about our mental workouts.

We don’t say “I need to do my 20 minutes of meditation today, say my five gratitudes at the dinner table, or journal about a positive experience I had.” Yet we know all of those things cause massive increases in our happiness!

That happiness is a choice and can be cultivated and that’s what drives the increases in our health, productivity and prosperity.

You say in The Happiness Equation that we’ve shifted from a “Culture of Enough” to a “Culture of More.” How do we go back?

Well, I feel like all of us are in a trap. You set a goal, you achieve it. Then you set another goal, then you achieve it. Part of the reason it’s easy to always want more is because more is always available. You’re the best singer in your class? Go on TV. You’re the richest person in your office? You become an executive at another company and you’re not. You’re the smartest person in your class? Get a job at Google and now you’re average.

Our ability to find places where we’re not the best is ever-present.

When I say we need to shift our mental paradigm back to that Culture of Enough, I’m talking about doing the math on what you actually need to be happy. For most of us, it’s much, much less than we have or are striving for, and that’s a tremendous stress relief. It affords the ability to do what you love.

You share an intriguing model in The Happiness Equation called The Success Triangle. Can you tell us about it?

I received an awards banquet invitation from Shad, a non-profit organization where I sit on the board. At the dinner, I was seated next to a sponsor for two hours, and the Chairman introduced us by saying “Neil’s a New York Times bestselling author who’s sold a million books and Nancy wants to be a writer. Enjoy! “

Nancy looked at me and said: “Okay, so tell me, how do you be successful?” I paused for a minute and thought about it. Then I drew her The Success Triangle on a napkin. Here’s what it looks like: 

success triangle


There are three kinds of success that sit on each corner of the triangle:

  • Sales success is commercial success. Your book’s a hit. You’re raking in the dough.
  • Social success is when you’re a success amongst your peers. This is critical success. You receive a nice review in the newspaper. You’re nominated for an award,
  • Self success is internal. How do you feel about yourself? Are you proud of your own accomplishments? Do you feel deeply satisfied?

These three types of success apply to every single aspect of our lives. If you’re in Marketing, sales success is product shipment, social success is the awards or comments from the boss, and self success is the same.

And the biggest surprise is these three types of success actually contradict each other. Many of the projects you take on for yourself have no marketable strategy, so no sales results. (That wasn’t the goal of building a great deck or planning a great lesson, of course!) And often social success blocks sales success. An example? Look at Best Picture at the Oscars. My favourite movie a few years back was The Hurt Locker. It won Best Picture! There’s no higher social success. But the movie only made $19 million that year. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel made $250 million. Which movie would you have rather made?

The book is organized around “secrets” for happiness. One of them is called “Do it for you.” What do you mean by that?

Well, when I wrote my blog, I did it for me. I wanted to write 1,000 awesome things for 1,000 days in a row. But after a couple of days, I started noticing that the side of my blog had a blog counter. I could see that five people came to visit me, and so I said, I want 50,000 people to come. When I got 50,000, I wanted a million. When I got a million, I wanted a book deal. Then I wanted a bestseller, then number one on the bestseller’s list. It just became endless, because what’s happening was I was changing my intrinsic motivators to extrinsic motivators, and seeking outside opinions as a replacement for my internal sense of values.

This is so common. Study after study has been done that shows when we’re presented with extrinsic motivators—a performance evaluation, a stats counter, a grade at the end off a class—these motivators actually become shiny objects that conceal our own intrinsic reasons for doing it. There’s a study where girls have been asked to help each other with their homework. Those who are given a free coupon to go to the movies quit after getting frustrated, and left as soon as it’s done. Those who were given no compensation were more patient, kind, and stayed longer to do better work. That type of study has been replicated over and over again.

My point is to do it for you. Because when you’re doing it for your own reasons, you actually get better work done. You’re no longer distracted by shiny flashing lights telling you why you should do something. Those motivators—the paycheques, the price of your house, number of cars in your driveway—are simply external motivators that replace how you actually feel.

The equation for happiness according to your book is “Want nothing + Do anything = Have everything.” We’ve covered the want nothing part, let’s talk about do anything. You say in your book that retirement is a broken concept that we shouldn’t strive for. Why?

When you’re through changing, you’re through.

The healthiest and longest living cultures in the world don’t have a word for retirement. For stopping work completely. Because the truth is work gives us so much. I call the benefits of work the 4 S’s:

First, social. It’s our social relationships that are the number one predictor of happiness—more than demographics, age or income. We have carpools, breakfast meetings, so many social connections, and these relationships are critical to our health and wellbeing.

Next is structure. We all have 168 hours in a week. You have that, I have that, Warren Buffett has that. The richest man in the world can’t buy more time. When you split that time into three buckets of 56, you have 56 hours for sleep (8 hours a night), 56 hours for work (8 hours a day plus some evening/weekend time), and one big free 56 hour bucket leftover. The work bucket pays for and justifies your third, free, creative, fun bucket. Your going-to-the-gym bucket. Your taking-your-kids-to-the-zoo bucket. Your family-vacation bucket.

Third is stimulation. This is about being challenged and developing yourself by learning new things. There’s all this learning at work when we’re being exposed to projects, conferences, or technology. It’s very important that we have that in our lives.

Last is story. Story is about working with a group of people to achieve something bigger than yourself. I spent 10 years working at Walmart with the story of working to lower the cost of living. If you work for Facebook, you’re connecting the world. If you work for Wikipedia, you’re giving everyone the sum of human knowledge for free. You can’t do that by yourself. Being part of a workplace actually helps you do something you couldn’t otherwise do.

So those Four S’s are so critical to our health and wellbeing, and they are found in doing work. Not necessarily expensive work or paid work, but doing something and avoiding the detriment of becoming idle, which leads to atrophy. I very actively denounce retirement as a concept we should strive towards.

The Happiness Equation: Want Nothing + Do Anything = Have Everything is out today from G.P. Putnam’s Sons