What is an instance of happiness?
That’s a squishy question philosophers have discussed for millennia. According to Sparknotes, Aristotle said happiness is an end to itself. The poet Kahlil Gibran wrote that happiness “is your sorrow unmasked,” whatever that means.
Rhetoric aside, researchers at the University College London say happiness (or at least a discrete moment of it) is represented by the formula above, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The gist of that formula is this: Happiness spikes when we win and our expectations are low — but that happiness gradually fades over time.
To be clear, the scientists weren’t studying overall life satisfaction, but rather the momentary joy that comes from winning a reward.
With MRI machines, the researchers peered into the minds of 26 subjects who were playing a gambling game. Throughout the game, the computer asked participants to rate how happy they were on a 1-to-10 scale. The researchers then not-so-simply combined brain-activity data with the reported level of happiness, and the participant’s history of success in the game, and crafted the above equation.
What they found was that it wasn’t the overall amount of money won in the game that gave the participants the greatest happiness. The formula incorporates a “forgetting factor” — which predicts that the happiness obtained from a previous win degrades over time. Ten more trials after a win, the original win “essentially has no influence on current happiness.”
According to the formula, happiness spikes when things go better than expected. “For example,” the study concludes, “a £0 prize decreases happiness if the alternative was winning £2, but increases happiness if the alternative was losing £2.”
Which makes perfect sense: It’s better to win when that win avoids a bigger loss. But what’s surprising about this study is that the researchers were then able to use that formula to predict the general pattern of happiness in more than 18,000 people playing a similar game on a smartphone.
“Consistent with our previous results,” the study’s authors write, “earnings increased over time but happiness did not.” By studying the brains of 26 people, the researchers could roughly predict the behaviors of 18,000.
Normally, the best tool psychologists have to measure happiness in a patient is a questionnaire, which is extremely subjective. But this research suggests there might be a way to peer into the mind and quantify joy, which can make for more precise science in diagnosing and treating mental disorders.
Correction: This post originally misspelled Kahlil Gibran.
What We're Following See More »
With President Trump back from a trip in which he seemed to undermine European alliances while cozying up to Vladimir Putin, the White House has announced that European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will visit on July 25. According to a statement, the two "will focus on improving transatlantic trade and forging a stronger economic partnership."
"The House Veterans Affairs Committee has launched an investigation into care at the VA’s 133 nursing homes after learning the agency had given almost half of them the lowest possible score in secret, internal rankings. The probe follows an investigation by The Boston Globe and USA TODAY that showed 60 VA nursing homes ... rated only one out of five stars for quality last year in the agency’s own ranking system." Internal documents revealed that "patients in more than two-thirds of VA nursing homes were more likely to suffer pain and serious bedsores than their private sector counterparts, and that "VA nursing homes scored worse than private nursing homes on a majority of key quality indicators, including rates of anti-psychotic drug prescription and decline in daily living skills."
Colorado Representative Mike Coffman has introduced a bill "that would codify free internet regulations into law" by instituting the "basic outlines of the Federal Communication Commission’s 2015 Open Internet order." Coffman's bill amends the 1934 Telecommunications Act by "banning providers from controlling traffic quality and speed and forbidding them from participating in paid prioritization programs or charging access fees from edge providers." The GOP congressman has also "signed on to a Democrat-led effort to reinstate the net neutrality rules that the FCC voted to repeal late last year."