A new study may have found the formula for happiness. Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it looks like this:
In plain English, it boils down to lowered expectations.
Researchers at University College London recently investigated the link between happiness and reward in over 18,000 people with a smartphone app “The Great Brain Experiment.” The app was modeled on a smaller study where 26 subjects completed decision-making tasks that led to monetary gains or losses, reporting on their happiness throughout the game. Subjects’ neural activity was also monitored. On the smartphone app, the ideal was similar, though subjects were playing for points, not money.
Though we expect that winning would affect subjects’ moment-to-moment happiness, another factor weighed heavily–expectations. It wasn’t just points or money won that affected happiness; it was how winning or losing compared to subjects’ expectations formed during past experiences. In other words, it’s not just about how well things were going, but also how well you expected them to go. For example, the study explains, “a £0 prize decreases happiness if the alternative was winning £2, but increases happiness if the alternative was losing £2.”
“It is often said that you will be happier if your expectations are lower. We find that there is some truth to this,” said the study’s lead author Dr. Robb Rutledge. “Lower expectations make it more likely that an outcome will exceed those expectations and have a positive impact on happiness.” But expectations don’t just affect our happiness after we learn the outcome of a decision. “If you have plans to meet a friend at your favourite restaurant, those positive expectations may increase your happiness as soon as you make the plan,” says Dr. Rutledge. “The new equation captures these different effects of expectations and allows happiness to be predicted based on the combined effects of many past events.”
And while the key to happiness may not lie in expecting the worst, this study does open up the door to learning more about mood disorders and improving treatment options.
The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.