Inspired by Elon Musk’s urgings to “think from first principles”, I started thinking about the concept of happiness, and what we mean when we talk about it. Is it just a state when all our needs have been fulfilled? Is it something more? What is actually necessary for our own happiness?

TL;DR: I propose a happiness model that is based on a pseudo-mathematical combination of our different levels of needs.

Let’s dive into happiness from first principles.

What Is Happiness?

This is the hard part about the happiness from first principles approach: you don’t have much to stand on. For instance, in order to talk about achieving happiness, we need to consider both whether that is a worthy goal, and what actually defines happiness. Both are surprisingly difficult.

Is happiness worth pursuing, as the founding fathers of the United States declared? Some argue that there’s more to life than being happy such as, for example, searching for meaning. Others, like the entire field of positive psychology allegedly backed by little-known thinkers like Confucius and Socrates, have found strategies to increase happiness as the measure of leading a fulfilled life.

In my personal experience, happiness has been an outcome metric. That is, it resulted from pursuing various other goals, but isn’t directly tied to success or failure of achieving those goals. So, frankly, the argument of whether happiness is the actual thing we need to pursue, or whether it’s a result of pursuing other things, seems like a semantic to me: the point is, we all want happiness, even if it means different things to different people.

What kinds of different things? All sorts. Ranging from the aforementioned meaning of life, to financial status, to love, learning, and leisure time, happiness is hard to pin down. Recalling personal experience once more, I feel that a unifying quality of happy moments is the lack of want or need for anything in those moments. We could, of course, as with mindfulness practices, work on making sure we de-focus our desires and dissatisfaction, or learn to desire less, both admirable practices. Nevertheless, a concrete set of needs, differing from person to person, will exist.

Thus, here is the simplest but most-encompassing definition I could come up with:

Happiness is the fulfilment of personal needs.

So, What Do We Need?

There is a large variety of human needs models, from hierarchical to matrix- to nautilus-based. Here is a small sample:

1. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The likely best-known model is that of Abraham Maslow, and it seems to imply a priority order of needs fulfilment.

2. Max-Neef’s Fundamental Needs Model

Artur Manfred Max Neef came up with a matrix-based model of human needs that are presented more as trade-offs.

3. Hertnon’s Nautilus of Needs

Simon Hertnon is a writer by trade with an interest in human needs. I wanted to include this model because it is symmetrical between personal and community goals (also, because nautilus), and because Simon makes a distinction between survival and betterment goals, which is appealing to me.

We can debate at length the exact sequencing, priority, and interdependence of human needs, but one thing is clear: there exists a concept of “basic needs“, defined differently in different countries, but invariably including things like food and water, shelter and clothing. These are true needs, fundamental for human survival.

Developed countries like Canada also include health care, personal care, essential furnishings, transportation and communication, laundry, home insurance, and miscellaneous in this category of basic needs (the reason that list doesn’t include things like sleep, or education, is on the assumption that everyone can acquire them by personal choice (for free)).

In my view, humans have two buckets of needs: threshold and everything else. Threshold needs encompass all basic needs as defined above plus whatever comforts or luxuries (for example, vacations) one requires for happiness. The “everything else” bucket houses all the comforts, luxuries, dreams and aspirations that are nice to have, but not necessary for happiness.

Your own personal list of threshold needs might be different, but is probably way shorter than what you think. The point merely is that a threshold exists.

Why does this matter? After reviewing these models, I think there is a crucial nuance missing that might be simple to explain with math. So, without further ado, I present…

Masha’s Nerdy Needs Math

happiness = thresholdNeeds * (1 + otherNeed1 + otherNeed2 + … + otherNeedN), where thresholdNeeds is either 0 or 1.

The threshold needs mentioned above are, in my mind, fairly few and discrete: you either have them covered, or you don’t; so your threshold needs number is either 0 or 1. The other way to think about it is until you have your thresholdNeeds covered, you should focus the majority of your need-fulfilling energy there. But after you’ve passed the threshold, focusing on them further will yield diminishing returns.

If you’re wondering why I made up terms like “threshold needs” and “other needs” instead of just needs versus wants, it’s mostly because I believe threshold needs to include true needs as well as some wants, and other needs could also include both – besides, there is much fluidity in the model, so stark categories feel too restrictive to me.

How to Cover Threshold Needs

If threshold needs (like food, water, etc.) are things you cannot make yourself and therefore have to acquire, then you need the means to do so. Currently, and I’m speaking from my privileged position as a Canadian citizen, that “means” == money. But how much do we need for happiness?

There is an oft-cited Princeton study that puts a price tag on these threshold needs for emotional well-being of approximately USD$75,000. Again, your personal number will be different – but it exists.

A quick aside: do we actually need money? My conclusion is that yes, in our current economic system, we do, specifically to cover those threshold needs. One could arguably go live in a commune, or off the grid, grow your own food and chop your own wood, and walk everywhere, but that feels incredibly inefficient (an optimization problem addressed further in this post). Alternatively, there are experiments with basic universal income but they’re far from widespread – and this still means that we are anchored in having some base level of money.

So, if we sub threshold money for threshold needs in our equation above, we get

happiness = thresholdMoney * (1 + otherNeed1 + otherNeed2 + … + otherNeedN), where thresholdMoney is either 0 or 1.

This highlights the key nuance I was after: money is a means, not an end, but without the means, there is no end. The point is not to make more money, it’s to make enough to do what you actually want to do. The goal is to rise to your threshold and then blast through it using appropriate means (which then may or may not include money).

As H. L. Mencken put it,

“The chief value of money lies in the fact that one lives in a world in which it is overestimated.”

As another personal example, my threshold needs apparently exist at a shockingly low CAD$2,000 a month for everyday expenses, plus an additional $3,000 – $5,000 per year for trips and getaways.

What About Our Other Needs?

Because this bucket is even more personal, I have no blanket statements to make here except to take the time to really think about what these are. Once your threshold needs are covered, you need to evaluate each one of your other needs to decide what fuel they require – whether it means making more money, or actually having time, or working on yourself, or working on your personal relationships, or learning a new skill, etc.

Optimizing the Model

Now that we’ve established our happiness from first principles math, let’s see if we can hack the model.

Decrease Your Threshold

Remember, we included certain comforts and luxuries in the threshold needs bucket. Be really brutal considering these. For a quick reality check, that USD$75,000 number cited above is per household, not per person.

Due to my supremely lucky personal situation (tons of safety nets: huge support from family, including financial, no kids, living in Canada so free shit everywhere) and a lot of pondering, my threshold was something I was able to lower significantly.

Increase Efficiency of Meeting Threshold Needs

A big caveat of the equation above is that it doesn’t take time into consideration. Because our only really limited commodity is the time we have available (in a day and in a life), it’s prudent to figure out ways to minimize the amount we spend on meeting threshold needs.

There are a ton of time-for-money trade-offs in them, probably worth another whole post (scalability, market value caps, sphere of control, etc.), but there are myriad mechanisms for meeting threshold needs other than the default salaried position:

  • Contracting
  • Selling physical things you make
  • Creating software products for which customers will pay
  • Marrying rich
  • Inheriting tons of cash from a rich aunt
  • Joining affiliate programs
  • Becoming a franchisee
  • Building and selling your own company
  • Investing

The goal here is to get to the threshold spending the least possible amount of time; books like the 4-Hour Work Week espouse this proposition.

Increase Enjoyment of Making Money

A close corollary to the above is to increase the enjoyment of making the threshold amount of money we discussed.

Decrease Other Needs Requiring Money

Hopefully via the model above you understand that you can cut this to the bone – likely way lower than you think.

What Do You Think?

Phew, that was quite a read! I’m really curious to get your feedback – does this model of happiness from first principles make sense to you? Does it resonate? Help you see things from a new perspective? Can you think of other ways to hack it?

Let me know in the comments, or shoot a note to – I’d love to hear from you!


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