Is This the Equation for Happiness?

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Wouldn't it be nice if all your efforts toward achieving happiness really did add up like two plus two equals four? But alas, it's never that simple. Scientists at the University College London (UCL), however, did recently find a way to calculate how to attain the elusive, much-coveted, feel-good emotion using complicated algebra. But this isn't something you can solve on your TI82 calculator.

In the study, researchers asked 26 people to make decisions between safe and risky options (that would either lead to monetary rewards or losses) while measuring their brain activity. Throughout the process, the people were repeatedly asked about their happiness levels. Researchers then used the data to develop a five-minute game, which they later marketed as a smartphone app called “The Great Brain Experiment” and got the results from 18,420 international participants. The results: an equation that could accurately predict people's happiness while playing the game even if they only won points instead of money.

“We were trying to understand how happiness changes from moment to moment,” says lead study author Robb Rutledge, Ph.D. “We know about what happens in the brain when people are rewarded, but we didn't know how those things connected to one's emotion state,” he adds.

So what makes you happy? “Certain rewards”—or safe options—don't affect your happiness. “Rewards minus expectations”, like trying a new restaurant you know little about, mean you're only happy when the outcome is better than you expected. And setting positive expectations that also make you happy (like meeting a friend to try a new yoga class) may put you in a better mood because you have nice things to look forward to, Rutledge explains.

Okay, so none of the above is rocket science, but the equation itself says otherwise. (One look sent us spiraling in a horrible high school math class flashback.) So no, you can't actually do the math at home, but you can learn from this experiment. “The main message is that recent history—meaning your most recent rewards and expectations—matters most for your current emotional state,” Rutledge says.

Simply put: Happiness lies in a healthy balance between rewards and expectations. “Expectations have a very powerful effect on happiness. If you don't have good expectations, then you can can't make good decisions,” he warns.


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