Let’s face it: happiness is something we all seek, so much so that it’s written as a foundational human right in our Constitution. Yet, somehow, this seemingly basic feeling evades so many of us.
Fortunately, NYU Stern School of Business professor and New York Times bestselling author Scott Galloway has something to say about the “formula for a life well-lived”.
Who knew the secrets to happiness lay within a business school professor?
In his latest book The Algebra Of Happiness: Notes On The Pursuit Of Success, Love, And Meaning, he mixes personal anecdotes with no BS insights. Ironically, he concludes that there is no perfect formula for happiness, but has much to say to help you achieve it for yourself.
If you’re feeling “lost in a complex, chaotic world”, looking for your career to be “meaningful, not just lucrative”, want to know if work/life balance is possible, or searching for the secrets to a successful relationship, then keep reading. Galloway and I discuss this and more.
Darrah Brustein: For you what constitutes a life well-lived?
Scott Galloway: There’s no silver bullet for what constitutes a life well-lived, but there are signals and best practices. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves and adolescents to ‘follow your passion’ (more on that later) and to choose the right career path. However, the most important decision isn’t the career you choose but with whom you decide to mate and partner. As the pendulum of satisfaction swings up and down throughout your life, those who end up on a higher plane are people who have established a lot of deep, meaningful relationships.”
Brustein: You write unabashedly about many things you’ve “failed at”, along with reasons why you were “unremarkable”. Can you share a bit of context with our readers about that, as well as any upside to having had those experiences?
Galloway: Success can be measured by your resilience over failure. Everyone experiences failure and tragedy. You will get fired, lose people you love, and likely have periods of economic stress. I’ve had a marriage fail, had businesses I started go bankrupt, and lost the only person who (at that point) I knew loved me, my mom … all before 40. But the ability to mourn, and then move on, forces you to learn how to adapt and identify where your strengths lie. A key component of success is your ability to mourn, and move on.
Brustein: You write (and alluded to in your first answer), ”As you age, the stress of building the life you’ve been told you deserve, and are capable of, takes a toll.” How do you suggest one addresses this stress?
Galloway: “At some point, most of us come to the realization that we’re not going to be a professional athlete, have a fragrance named after us, or become a US Senator. This, coupled with rising student debt and an increasingly competitive job market, means that shit in your 20s becomes real…fast. One of the most destructive things you can do as stress builds in your life is consistently compare yourself to others. This is especially destructive when Instagram feeds are full of engagement and baby announcements, images of parties you weren’t invited to, new haircuts, puppies, and well-lit food. What these photos don’t show though are credit card bills, in-laws, injuries, break ups, rejections, test-prep classes, and crying children. My advice here is simple, nothing is ever as good or as bad as it seems.”
Brustein: You write, “…the most important decision you’ll make is not where you work or with whom you drink, but whom you choose as your partner for the rest of your life.” What have you experienced and seen to be the primary factors in a partnership’s working or not?
Galloway: There are three key components that make a good relationship with your spouse. This first is physical attraction. I think sex and affection mark a relationship as singular.
The second is values. Some of the important values that young people rarely discuss are how close are we going to live to your parents? What is the role of religion in our life? What do we think about politics? What’s our view on the number of kids? And third, something few people talk about but is the biggest source of divorce, is money. How much money do you and your partner think you’re going to make and spend? What economic weight class do you expect to live in and who’s going to contribute to that? Who’s responsible for it? What is each person’s approach to earning/spending/saving. For the most part, young people pick their relationships on the first. He’s cool. She’s hot. I’m attracted to this person. But it’s two and three that secure a fulfilling relationship.”
Brustein: Please share your perspective on the correlation between money and happiness.
Galloway: The amount of incremental joy we get from making more money plateaus once we have enough coming in to feel secure. For most Americans, that number is $75,000-$120,000 a year. For New Yorkers and those in big cities it’s significantly more. Let’s be clear though, making lots of money won’t make you depressed, it just won’t make you happier. Money is the ink in the pen that writes your story. You can write more chapters, and certain chapters will burn brighter with money, but it isn’t your story.
Brustein: In referencing the Harvard Medical School Grant Study on happiness, you share that there is one thing in a man’s life that predicted unhappiness better than any other factor. What is that and what were the outcomes?
Galloway: According to the Harvard Grant Study, the number one thing that was prevalent in men who were consistently unhappy was alcohol. Alcohol makes it easier to engage with other people, but it also makes you a mediocre person. (By the way, this is a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ answer…I love alcohol). Just because you’re not an alcoholic doesn’t mean you don’t have a problem with alcohol. There are a lot of incredibly high-functioning semi-alcoholics who still work for premier institutions and lead successful lives but they’ll begin to notice they lose contact with a lot of people, are not nearly as productive as they could be and their health is not where it should be. In sum, young people need to take stock of their relationship with substances and ask “Are substances getting in the way of my progress professionally and/or personally?” If yes, then address it.
Brustein: I’m a believer that ‘Follow your passion’ is poor advice, but rather, that you can become passionate about your circumstances, especially if you’re good at it. What is your take on this?
Galloway: Follow your passion is one of the worst pieces of advice you can give someone. Your job is to find something you’re good at, invest in those skills, become great at it, and the accoutrements of being great at something will make you passionate about whatever “it” is. Anyone who gets on stage or ends a speech with “Follow your passion,” is already rich, and made his or her millions mastering tax law or in iron ore smelting. However, there will always be that one person who’s such a genius and so good at what he does that money just kind of falls into his lap. Such people have a great relationship. They’re good looking. They get along with their parents, they volunteer at the ASPCA and they have a food blog. You should assume you’re not that person. The majority of people that I know who have managed to get to a certain economic weight class without inheriting that money, pretty much give up their 20s and 30s for work.
Brustein: Imposter syndrome, or as you write, thinking “I’m a fraud” is common. How do you suggest one overcomes this?
Galloway: Seventy percent of Americans admit to experiencing impostor syndrome. No one likes to feel inadequate or that your work really isn’t as great as people think it is. But the fear that comes with it is good. Fearing that people around you might uncover who you really are will push you into working harder to ensure they don’t. You should also assume that if you’re successful the people around you are (hopefully) smart enough that they would have called BS on you long ago if you didn’t deserve to be where you are.
Brustein: You’ve started or co-founded nine companies. Please share what you saw as the primary factor in whether or not they succeeded or failed?
Galloway: A major factor in whether or not a business succeeds or fails has to do with market dynamics. When the markets are strong, businesses boom. But the real indicator of whether or not a company has staying power is if they’re able to bring in the money during a recession. In my first book, The Four, I outline a framework called the ‘T-Algorithm”, which sets out eight criteria needed for a business to succeed as market disruptors, and keep the doors open during the down times. In sum, neither your successes nor your failures are entirely your fault. Hold yourself accountable, but be willing to forgive yourself for your mistakes.
Brustein: If you wanted readers to take one thing away from reading your book, what would it be?
Galloway: Happiness is love, full stop. You can get happiness from Chipotle, Netflix, and Cialis (I do), but those things will only bring you short-term happiness. When we really talk about meaningful happiness, we talk about investments we make through the course of our lives, and decisions in forgiveness we provide ourselves and other people, such that at the end of our lives, we feel we built a narrative of satisfaction. Ask yourself, do you feel loved and supported at home, at work, and with friends? And importantly, do they feel loved and supported by you? The universe wants to prosper and offers incentives to enhance the species–food and sex are both key, and enjoyable. However, the most rewarding thing is (logically) the key to the success of our species; to care for and love others.
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