This Is Literally the Formula for Happiness

Simple, right?

National Journal
Brian Resnick
Aug. 5, 2014, 11:44 a.m.

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.

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