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Happiness Is A Skill - Issue #26 - Finding Happiness Through Factual Optimism

The next few weeks are extremely busy for me, so I'm taking the opportunity to share an old article I
Happiness Is A Skill - Issue #26 - Finding Happiness Through Factual Optimism
By Brooke Siem  • Issue #26 • View online
The next few weeks are extremely busy for me, so I’m taking the opportunity to share an old article I wrote back in 2017. Enjoy the gratuitous pictures of my worldwide travels form 2016-2017!

Basque Country, Spain.
Basque Country, Spain.
I’m chasing the 51%.
In everything I do — work, relationships, day to day activities — I’m chasing that moment between positive and negative, between happy and depressed, between black and white, when everything suddenly changes and that one percent makes all the difference. On the eve of my deathbed, (hopefully) a handful of decades in the future, I can reflect back on my life and say to myself, “It was all worth it. Fifty one percent of the time, everything was beautiful.”
Call it “factual optimism,” or The 51% Theory
If I quantify my happiness onto a scale that ranges from zero percent happy to one hundred percent happy, I figure every decision I make somehow alters my position on that scale. If I can get my life to a 51% Lifetime Happiness Average, my choices are validated by default. My goal isn’t to reach a Utopic level of constant joy. (Fifteen years of antidepressants, therapy, and general malaise taught me that magical, 100% happiness only exists in lucid dreams or after delightfully fruity mushroom shakes taken on the beach in Thailand.) On some days, even 80% seems like a stretch. Fifty one percent though, is almost always doable, and at 51%, I’m winning.
The 51% Theory was something I developed when I was deep into Prohibition Bakery. Every day, I went to the little shop we built on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and baked boozy cupcakes for the masses. What started off as a little seedling idea during a stint of unemployment had grown into an actual, almost grown up business. I say it was almost grown up because the nature of our business lacked some very specific big boy business requirements. We never needed an HR department and didn’t have any investors or stockholders to please. We sold one product, at one price, so we didn’t need to deal with overly complicated books or accounting. We gave customers just one bench to sit on, and we made it purposely uncomfortable, because in a space of 200 square feet, the last thing we wanted was for people to hang around and test their fancy new digital nomad lifestyle by sucking our wifi and overstaying their welcome for four hours. A $2 boozy cupcake can get you a lot of things (and acts as a really good first date closer), but a comfy place to sit and browse Reddit is not one of them.
Once the magic of starting a new business wore off and we transitioned into the day to day drudgery of running a business, I started to struggle. The inherent simplicity of the business I’d co-created meant that after the initial growing phase passed by, we were left to manage a very straightforward small business. I turned into a robot that did the same thing every single day, which was exactly what I tried to avoid by starting my own business in the first place. Furthermore, profit margins on tiny cupcakes in New York City are as small as the bite sized confections themselves, and though we always operated in the black, there still wasn’t very much left over at the end of each month to you know, eat food and live. The $1 dumpling guy’s business likely shot up thanks to Prohibition Bakery, because the dream of running our own business was built on those dirt cheap, pork and chive filled pockets of fried dough.
On the (cold) beach in Portugal.
On the (cold) beach in Portugal.
Little changes bring big results (so avoid Facebook stalking after three glasses of wine)
At 26 years old, I was living on a diet of dumplings, MSG, and leftover booze. We had a five year lease and a loan to pay off. I was stuck in this until 2017 unless someone bought the business or a rogue cigarette burned the building down. No one enquired about the business, and I don’t smoke.
I’ve always found that quantifying emotions helps me to remain grounded and make decisions rooted in actual reality, as opposed to the reality created by the constant chatter in my head. I figured that at the end of our lease, I needed to be able to look back on the experience and say, “Over half the time, it was worth it.” At that point, I felt like I had one good day out of every seven, which meant that I was only content with my life 14% of the time. Floating around at 14% Happiness simply wasn’t worth all of the tears, late nights, and arbitrary business regulations randomly made up by the New York City government. Something needed to change. I needed to hit 51%, that was all. Anything more was icing on the… boozy cupcake.
I began to make small changes that were likely to get me closer to that 51%, or 3.6 good days in a week. A good day, I decided, was one in which I felt generally content 51% of the time. Days in which I came home from work, drank a glass or two of wine and ate sushi while watching Mad Men occasionally bumped my Daily Happiness Average to 51%. Days in which I came home from work, drank a bottle of wine and ate a pizza while watching The Biggest Loser generally didn’t make it over that 51% hump, especially after that third glass, when Facebook stalking suddenly becomes a depressing journey through nostalgia and jealousy.
Sometimes I miss those Tuesdays
At first, I measured “generally content” broadly, by simply checking in with myself about how I felt at the end of the day and making a mental note between “better than yesterday,” or “worse than yesterday.” Eventually, my rating system became more detailed, and these days, I record my DHR (Daily Happiness Rating) at the top of every evening’s journal entry. For example, yesterdays rating clocked in at 83% because I was “generally pleased with life today, but it was brought down by mild irritation thanks to an hour at the Portuguese post office.”
I also applied the 51% to each individual decision, because as long as that singular decision fell at 51% or higher, it would help guarantee an overall 51% Lifetime Happiness Average. I didn’t — and still don’t—quantify through methods like pro and con lists, mostly because I find that pro and con lists primarily address logic while neglecting emotion and intuition. Though the 51% Theory in itself is logic and data driven, I base the actual decision on how it makes me feel. Whenever I’m faced with a situation during the day, I take a moment and simply ask myself, “Where does this decision fall on the scale? How do I feel when I think about it? Do I feel expanded or contracted? Joyful or apprehensive?” If the decision feels like it will bring 51% Happiness, I go with it, even in the absence of logic or practicality. If I don’t know the answer, I wait a day or two, gather more information, and ask again. Patience, I find, is the key to discerning the difference between 49% and 51%.
In the beginning, it was all about the little things. One of the first decisions I made using the 51% Theory was to get rid of all my college clothes that made me feel like an inexperienced child and replace them with clothes that made me feel powerful. That was an easy decision, probably around 80% on the scale. The 20% hesitation was tied to spending money I didn’t really have, but feeling better in my clothes every single day automatically increased my Daily Happiness Average without having to do any more additional work. In one decision, I increased my daily happiness for the foreseeable future.
I felt sluggish and out of shape (dumplings go straight to my hips), so I joined a CrossFit gym around the corner. Initially, I placed that decision at a 55/45 split. It seemed like a great idea, but I hated getting up in the morning to work out, hated the actual act of lifting weights, and hated that I paid $250/month to be miserable for an hour and sore for days. I told myself that I would stick it out for a few months, and if that 55% Happiness fell below 51%, I would drop the gym and try something else. Instead, I loved that 50lb bags of flour started to feel light. I shifted my mindset from what my body could do, and not what it looked like. I ate better and drank less. I found a new set of friends. The initial 55% turned into 95%, and I soon saw an increase in the the number of good days in a week. Instead of one overall good day out of seven, I occasionally had two good days. Maybe even two and a half. At 2.5 good days out of 7, my Weekly Happiness Average shot up to around 35%.
I was moving in the right direction, so I applied this theory to all aspects of my life. Will that cake make me feel 51% better about myself over time, or 51% worse? Will I be 51% content with my decision to go on that awkward second date, or would I be 51% happier spending the night at home? Will hiring a new employee make work 51% better, or will the hassle of training be 51% more of a pain in the ass? Basically, I turned my life into an epic game of Would You Rather, with the intent of knowing that every decision I made would somehow improve or worsen my Lifetime Happiness Average. Some decisions gave the average a major boost, such as deciding to write the Prohibition Bakery book or deciding to leave New York City to travel around the world. Other decisions brought the average down, like overstaying a bad relationship, or letting laziness and depression rule my decision-making process.

Pennycycling in Malaysia.
Pennycycling in Malaysia.
When in doubt, make a graph!
The beauty of the 51% Theory is that all decisions suddenly become easy decisions. Even difficult decisions are easy decisions. They may still carry immense consequence or be a royal pain in the ass to execute, but once the 51% threshold is crossed, nothing else matters. I don’t need to waste my time figuring out how to get a situation that naturally falls at 60% to somehow morph into 90% in order for it to be worth it. At 51%, I’m already ahead. I make the decision and go. With a little patience, 51% decisions almost always end up at a higher percentage on the scale.
That said, the 51% Theory is not finite. If, over too many days, a particular decision that started off at 51% or higher begins to fall, something probably needs to change. If a situation falls to 40% or so, that’s where I start getting curious. Is the drop tied to my emotions or external logistics? Did the situation change or did I change? Is the effort involved in getting it back to 51% worth my time?
When I don’t know the answer, I focus on a situation’s effect on the overall average. Since the goal is to hit 51% over the course of my life, a situation that sits around 45% for a few weeks only incrementally lowers my overall average, whereas a situation that sits at 5% for a few days can be intense enough to bring the whole average down. The lower the situation on the Happiness Scale, the higher its priority. If I have a nail in my foot, I’m not going to focus my energy on the splinter in my finger. Even if I have 10 splinters in my finger, it’s the single nail is causing the bigger issue… and yet, over and over again, I watch people focus on the splinters while ignoring the giant, rusted nail in between their metatarsals.
Rusty nails can be so comforting.
In three years of implementing this factual optimism, my life has changed dramatically. I wanted to see a visual representation, so I made a graph:
This isn’t a true lifetime representation, since it’s difficult to remember my emotional state before 2001. That was the year my father died. Anything before that seems arbitrary since my childhood definition of “happiness” was whether or not my mom packed an Oreo in my lunchbox.
I was a typical teenager until my father passed, so I give that year a solid 35%. The “peak” in 2008 was thanks to a debauchery filled final semester of college that was quickly squashed with the reality and uncertainty of moving to Manhattan on my own. Overall, I estimated around 2.75 good days per week that year. The bakery was established in 2011 but by 2013, I was lucky to get one good day per week. I implemented the 51% Theory in 2014, and by 2015, my day to day massively improved.
The Lifetime Happiness Average only tells a broad story. I find it much more interesting to break down by year:
As you can see, 2016 was an emotional mess. In February, I made a decision based on the 51% Theory to leave my life in New York City travel around the world indefinitely. Because one life altering decision apparently wasn’t enough, I also decided to get off the cocktail of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety pills that I’d been taking since my father passed away. Both of these decisions barely squeaked in at 51%, and I ended up creating a perfect storm of logistical and emotional hell that was extremely painful and even more expensive. Even though the immediate consequences of these two 51% decisions created five of the worst months of my entire life, the after effects are proving to be worth as high as 86%. That’s six good days per week — the highest I’ve ever averaged.
In the depths of these five months, I reminded myself (and was often reminded by others) that I made these decisions because of that 1%. Even though 49% and 51% feels similar in the moment, that 1% is the tipping point that creates momentum for positive change. At 49%, you’re still struggling against the current. At 51%, you’re moving with the river. And at the end of your life, whenever that may be, you can hop out of your inner tube onto the sandy bank and gulp down the last of your river beer. As others are floating past or swimming upstream, you’ll look back on how far you’ve come and say, “Not only was it worth it, but damn, that was fun.”
The transformational power of how you talk about your life - BBC Future
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Did you enjoy this issue?
Brooke Siem

After 15 years of depression and antidepressants, my mission is to help people find hope in the name of healing. HAPPINESS IS A SKILL a newsletter for people who are ready to dig deep and do the self-work required to create a beautiful life. You can learn more about my story at www.brookesiem.com.

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