If you think math has little to do with finding a soulmate or any other “real world” preoccupations, Oscar Fernandez says guess again. According to his new book, The Calculus of Happiness, math offers powerful insights into health, wealth, and love, from choosing the best diet, to finding simple “all weather” investment portfolios with great returns. Using only high-school-level math (precalculus with a dash of calculus), Fernandez guides readers through the surprising results. He recently took the time to answer a few questions about the book and how empowering mathematics can be.
The title is intriguing. Can you tell us what calculus has to do with happiness?
Sure. The title is actually a play on words. While there is a sprinkling of calculus in the book (the vast majority of the math is precalculus-level), the title was more meant to convey the main idea of the book: happiness can be calculated, and therefore optimized.
How do you optimize happiness?
Good question. First you have to quantify happiness. We know from a variety of research that good health, healthy finances, and meaningful social relationships are the top contributors to happiness. So, a simplistic “happiness equation” is: health + wealth + love = happiness. This book then does what any good applied mathematician would do (I’m an applied mathematician): quantify each of the “happiness components” on the left-hand side of the equation (health, wealth, and love), and then use math to extract valuable insights and results, like how to optimize each component.
This process sounds very much like the subtitle, how a mathematical approach to life adds up to health, wealth, and love. But just to be sure, can you elaborate on the subtitle?
That’s exactly right. Often we feel like various aspects of our lives are beyond our control. But in fact, many aspects of our lives, including some of the most important ones (like health, wealth, and love), follow mathematical rules. And by studying the equations that emerge from these rules you can quickly learn how to manipulate those equations in your favor. That’s what I do in the book for health, wealth, and love.
Can you give us some examples/applications?
I can actually give you about 30 of them, roughly the number discussed in the book. But let me focus on my three favorite ones. The first is what I called the “rational food choice” function (Chapter 2). It’s a simple formula: divide 100 calories by the weight (say, in grams) of a particular food. This yields a number whose units are calories per gram, the units of “energy density.” Something remarkable then happens when you plot the energy densities of various foods on a graph: the energy densities of nearly all the healthy foods (like fruits and vegetables) are at most about 2 calories per gram. This simple mathematical insight, therefore, helps you instantly make healthier food choices. And following its advice, as I discuss at length in the book, eventually translates to lower risk for developing heart disease and diabetes, weight loss, and even an increase in your life span! The second example comes from Chapter 3; it’s a formula for calculating how many more years you have to work for before you can retire. Among the formula’s many insights is that, in the simplest case, this magic number depends entirely on the ratio of how much you save each year to how much you spend. And the formula, being a formula, tells you exactly how changing that ratio affects your time until retirement. The last example is based on astronomer Frank Drake’s equation for estimating the number of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy (Chapter 5). It turns out that this alien-searching equation can also be used to estimate the number of possible compatible partners that live near you! That sort of equates a good date with an intelligent alien, and I suppose I can see some similarities (like how rare they are to find).
The examples you’ve mentioned have direct relevance to our lives. Is that a feature of the other examples too?
Absolutely. And it’s more than just relevance—the examples and applications I chose are all meant to highlight how empowering mathematics can be. Indeed, the entire book is designed to empower the reader—via math—with concrete, math-backed and science-backed strategies for improving their health, wealth, and love life. This is a sampling of the broader principle embodied in the subtitle: taking a mathematical approach to life can help you optimize nearly every aspect of your life.
Will I need to know calculus to enjoy the book?
Not at all. Most of the math discussed is precalculus-level. Therefore, I expect that nearly every reader will have studied the math used in the book at some point in their K-12 education. Nonetheless, I guide the reader through the math as each chapter progresses. And once we get to an important equation, you’ll see a little computer icon next to it in the margin. These indicate that there are online interactive demonstrations and calculators I created that go along with the formula. The online calculators make it possible to customize the most important formulas in the book, so even if the math leading up to them gets tough, you can still use the online resources to help you optimize various aspects of health, wealth, and love.
Finally, you mention a few other features of the book in the preface. Can you tell us about some of those?
Sure, I’ll mention two particular important ones. Firstly, at least 1/3 of the book is dedicated to personal finance. I wrote that part of the book to explicitly address the low financial literacy in this country. You’ll find understandable discussions of everything from taxes to investing to retirement (in addition to the various formulas derived that will help you optimize those aspects of your financial life). Finally, I organized the book to follow the sequence of math topics covered in a typical precalculus textbook. So if you’re a precalculus student, or giving this book to someone who is, this book will complement their course well. (I also included the mathematical derivations of the equations presented in the chapter appendixes.) This way the youngest readers among us can read about how empowering and applicable mathematics can be. It’s my hope that this will encourage them to continue studying math beyond high school.
Oscar E. Fernandez is assistant professor of mathematics at Wellesley College and the author of Everyday Calculus: Discovering the Hidden Math All around Us and The Calculus of Happiness: How a Mathematical Approach to Life Adds Up to Health, Wealth, and Love.