How Leaders Use the Happiness Equation

By Dave G Jensen

“I thought there were supposed to be thousands of butterflies?” Marek’s wrinkled brow confirmed his disappointment. His two brothers and sister joined in a chorus of, “I can’t believe we drove six hours to see this!”

The four adults acknowledged there were relatively few butterflies, yet emphasized that the absolute numbers were still quite staggering. “After all, there are hundreds of monarch butterflies.”

Our optimistic words were lost as my friend’s four children raced towards the newly discovered sand dunes on the beach.

When we caught up to them, we discovered the kids rolling down a mountain of sand, screaming with delight. That is when I realized that the children were living “The Leader’s Happiness Equation.”

Happiness = Experience – Expectations

The above equation predicts that the leaders’ level of happiness (and that of his team) is equal to their perception of that experience minus our expectations prior to the experience.

For example, think about the last time you were disappointed after a project was delivered to you. On a scale of 1 to 10, what score would you assign your expectation prior to delivery? (Go ahead; pick a high number if you had high expectations. Let us use 8 for illustrative purposes because in our story, the children were fired-up about seeing thousands of butterflies.) Next, on a scale of 1 to 10, what score would you assign to the experience immediately after you experienced the project? (Pick a low number if you had a lousy experience. Let’s use 2, which is how the kids were feeling when the saw “only” a few hundred butterflies.). If you do the math (2 – 8), you have a “happiness score” (the -6 in our example reveals how unhappy the kids were initially). If the number is positive, you are relatively happy. If it is negative, you are negative about that experience.

Now that you know what it is, let’s see how leaders use it.

How to Use the Leader’s Happiness Equation

  • Get fired up with high expectations prior to any experience. Rosenthal’s review of 345 research studies concluded that positive expectations lead to positive experiences (1).
  • Let go of your expectations like a balloon on a windy day as you start having the experience. That is what the kids did. Their expectations dropped to zero when they chose to be in the moment and experience the joy of the sand dunes.
  • Ask expansive questions to perceive the experience in a positive light, such as: What might be good about this? What am I learning here? Subconsciously, the kids were asking, Where can we have fun now?
  • Embrace both a “Western” thinking tradition (expect to achieve goals) and “Eastern” tradition (experience the joy of now) by applying the equation.

So, how might you adapt these four simple steps to help to lead your team?

Keep stretching,

Dave Jensen helps leaders manage ambiguity, gain buy-in to any change, improve decision-making, and achieve difficult goals in today’s complex, competitive, and conflicting environment. For a FREE Chapter of his forthcoming book, The Executive’s Paradox – How to Stretch When You’re Pulled by Opposing Demands, or to receive his highly researched, yet practical leadership tips once a month, sign up for his free eZine (Dave’s Raves), visit

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