WHAT MAKES US HAPPY?
Happiness is nothing more
than good health and a bad memory.
Our envy always lasts
longer than the happiness of those we envy.
Rutledge is a Senior Research Associate at University College
London. The 'Great Brain Experiment' was named the best overall
game in the Wall Street Journal.
makes us happy? Well-being researchers have identified many variables
related to happiness, but we still don’t know exactly how
the events of our daily lives combine to influence how we feel
from moment to moment. People should get happier when good things
happen, but clearly this is not the whole story.
a study to investigate the relationship between rewards and happiness.
We brought people into the lab and asked them repeatedly about
their happiness as they chose between safe and risky monetary
options. Risky choices were gambles with equal probabilities (like
a coin toss) of a better or worse outcome. If they chose to gamble
on a given trial, they then found out whether they won or lost.
Based on the data, we developed a mathematical equation to predict
how self-reported happiness depends on past events. We found that
happiness depends not on how well things are going, but whether
things are going better or worse than expected.
Happiness depends on safe choices (certain rewards, CR), expectations
associated with risky choices (expected value, EV), and whether
the outcomes of risky choices were better or worse than expected.
This final variable is called a reward prediction error (RPE),
the difference between the experienced outcome and the expectation.
The neurotransmitter dopamine is thought to represent these signals
which might explain how people learn about rewards (if you get
more than you expected, next time you should expect more).
our findings translate to real life? As soon as you make a plan
to meet a friend for dinner, your happiness should increase in
anticipation. If you manage to get a last-minute reservation at
a popular new restaurant, your happiness might increase even more.
If the meal is good, but not quite as good as expected, your happiness
should actually decrease. Our equation predicts exactly how much
happiness will go up and down, and our results reveal just how
important expectations are.
is a difficult thing to measure, and one concern is that something
about being in the lab is important for our findings. Working
with a team of researchers at University College London, we developed
a smartphone app called the Great Brain Experiment. The app is
free and available in the Apple and Android app stores. We invite
everyone to download the app and to play the different games.
By playing the games, you contribute to ongoing research on important
questions in psychology and neuroscience. In the game ‘What
makes me happy?’ players choose between safe and risky options
to win as many points as they can.
our mathematical equation, we could predict the happiness of over
18 000 people worldwide playing our game. Our results demonstrate
that something as complicated as happiness can be studied using
smartphones. As more people play the game, we can start to look
for differences between groups, like players of different ages
understand the link between rewards and happiness, we also had
people play our game while having their brains scanned. We found
that neural activity in an area of the brain called the striatum
was closely related to reported happiness. When activity was high,
we could predict that happiness would increase. Because this area
has many connections to dopamine neurons, one interesting possibility
is that dopamine levels help determine happiness. Our equation
provides predictions that we can use to study the neural circuits
involved in happiness. We can ask questions like whether factors
that matter for happiness in young people differ in an important
way from happiness in adults. The equation also gives us a tool
for identifying differences between people that may help us better
understand mood disorders like major depression.
researcher studying happiness, people often ask me how they can
be happier. Our equation might make it seem like low expectations
are the secret to happiness, but that’s not the case. Low
expectations do make it more likely that an outcome will exceed
expectations and positively impact happiness, but expectations
also affect happiness before we find out how a decision turned
out. We often don’t know the outcome of major life decisions
for a long time, whether taking a new job or getting married,
but our results suggest that positive expectations about those
decisions will increase happiness. In general, accurate expectations
may be best. Our expectations help us decide where to go for dinner
and tell us whether a new restaurant is as good as everyone says
it is. Although we all want to be happy, being happy all of the
time is probably not a good idea. If you were ecstatic after every
meal, you would never be able to decide which restaurant to go
to. Our happiness tells us whether things are going better or
worse than expected, and that may be a very useful signal for
helping us make decisions.
may not be the secret to happiness, but being able to predict
happiness based on past rewards and expectations bring us one
step closer to understanding happiness. By studying how happiness
depends on the interaction between our brains and our environment,
we hope to yield insights that contribute to the important goal
of improving human well-being.