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 »
If a new poll is to be believed, Hillary Clinton has a big lead in the all-important swing state of Pennsylvania. A new Suffolk University survey shows her ahead of Donald Trump, 50%-41%. In a four-way race, she maintains her nine-point lead, 46%-37%. "Pennsylvania has voted Democratic in the past six presidential elections, going back to Bill Clinton’s first win in 1992. Yet it is a rust belt state that could be in play, as indicated by recent general-election polling showing a close race."
"President Barack Obama has chosen Jackson Park, a lakefront park that once hosted the world’s fair on the city’s South Side, for his $500 million presidential library, according to a person familiar with the matter."
Wednesday was the third night in a row that the Democratic convention enjoyed a ratings win over the Republican convention last week. Which might have prompted a fundraising email from Donald Trump exhorting supporters not to watch. "Unless you want to be lied to, belittled, and attacked for your beliefs, don't watch Hillary's DNC speech tonight," the email read. "Instead, help Donald Trump hold her accountable, call out her lies and fight back against her nasty attacks."
The Clintons will retain their Secret Service "code names from the last time they lived in the White House. Hillary Clinton is EVERGREEN and Bill ClintonEAGLE. Donald Trump is MOGUL, according to reports, and Melania Trump MUSE. The vice presidents get code names, too: Mike Pence is HOOSIER—a little on the nose—and his wife HUMMINGBIRD. Tim Kaine is DAREDEVIL, somewhat ambitiously. His wife's? To be determined."