Book review: ‘The Calculus of Happiness’ by Oscar E Fernandez

How crunching numbers can help you get richer, fitter and even find true love.

It won’t come as a surprise to E&T readers that mathematics is a thread that runs through the fabric of our everyday lives. But, as author Oscar E Fernandez says early in his brilliant ‘The Calculus of Happiness: How a Mathematical Approach to Life Adds Up to Health, Wealth, and Love’ (Princeton University Press, £19.95, ISBN 978069116863), this maths can be extrapolated and applied to subjective areas of our existence and put to work to make them more efficient. In short, maths can improve our lives, especially when it comes to the trio of conditions – health, wealth and love – that, according to Fernandez at least, we think about constantly.

But perhaps it’s better for us, as mathematicians, to think about them functionally, because it is through the understanding of inputs and outputs that we can build the equations that give us objectivity when it comes to creating our approach to managing weight, cholesterol, bank balance, investments, retirement plans, and even the potential for successful relationships.

Taking the last example first, for those of us thinking that online dating is simply hocus-pocus feeding off the insecurities of the lonely, think again. With a modified Drake equation we can deduce the number of potential partners that are realistic candidates for happiness ever after by letting N equal P (the population of the geographical area under consideration), times A (the fraction of P matching your desired sex), times E (the fraction that falls within the desired age range), all the way along to H1 (those you’d consider meeting), ending up with the distinctly frightening H2 (those who would consider dating you). After running the equation past himself (hypothetically, of course), the author finished his analysis by reaching the conclusion that there were 26 prospective partners out there corresponding to his requirements (although why he finds this depressing is something of a mystery).

Fernandez is more upbeat about how to get rich (or at least stop being poor). Mathematically speaking, it is significantly wiser to pay off debt than it is to invest (risk and tax free), while the best way to beat the stock exchange is to remain outside the loop altogether. By doing so you’ll make up to 15 per cent per annum, while paying off your non-mortgage debts. The only problem is, of course, that you won’t get richer in a very tangible sense. You’ll just get less poor.

Where Fernandez’s book scores highly is that it goes beyond being a typical self-help manual for the numerate, by presenting example after example of how mathematical topics such as probability, game theory and exponential functions really do make sense of a world that can sometimes seem so subjective. It’s also an easy-going analysis of those areas in life that get brushed under the carpet, to be attended to another day. Once you realise it all boils down to maths, you will wake up happier, wealthier and healthier tomorrow morning, and we have Oscar E Fernandez to thank for that.

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