More and more research is being gathered every day, confirming that happiness is something we can generate and even sustain in our everyday lives if we understand and honour certain principles.
One of those principles that is increasingly becoming clear is the relationship between our happiness and our expectations. What has been shown is that those who have unrealistic expectations or expectations that may not be met are unable, even if their lives seem blessed in other ways, to find inner peace and joy. The quiet river of dissatisfaction that runs through their minds means contentment and happiness are rarely to be found.
In this piece scientists specialising in psychiatry and ageing have come up with a mathematical formula that they claim is the key to happiness. In simple terms, this formula explains that happiness depends on your expectations.
Dr. Robb Rutledge, Senior Research Associate at the Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing says, "Our basic finding is that happiness depends not on how well things are going, but whether things are going better or worse than expected... our mathematical equation allows the influences of past rewards and expectations to be combined to predict how happy someone will be."
Rutledge and his team recruited 26 study participants and asked them to play a game in which they would either choose to earn a certain amount of money, or gamble with a chance to win or lose even more money. Every two or three games, researchers asked participants how happy they were at that moment.
After several games, the participants earned an average of £28.51 - quite a bit more than the initial £20 they earned just for showing up. But they reported more happiness per pound if the money they had won was a result of a gamble that turned out to exceed expectations.
It should be said for balance that Rutledge's equation can only calculate moment-to-moment happiness (as much as can be measured in a lab), and doesn't even begin to capture what most people care about when it comes to happiness – which is life satisfaction.
In an interview with The Huffington Post Rutledge said, "We can’t really change how satisfied people are with their lives in the lab - that doesn’t even make sense... but we can understand what determines happiness from moment to moment, and we do think that there’s some relationship between momentary happiness and life satisfaction which our research is yet to examine."
Rutledge was able to confirm his equation by hooking up the lab participants to MRI machines. The brain scans showed a lot of activity in an area of the brain called the striatum, which is linked to reward and expectations.
"We measured brain activity in this area during the experiment, added it up using the equations, and then predicted how happy people will be at any point," explained Rutledge. "We’re hoping that this area of the brain might be the one that explains happiness, because it’s known to represent some of the variables in the equation."
Rutledge then wanted to see if the results from his lab experiments would hold in a more general population, so he designed a game included in the free smart phone app, "The Great Brain Experiment," that mimicked the gambling tasks he used on participants in the lab. Like the lab tasks, it incorporated questions about happiness every two to three games, but it didn't involve real money.
Rutledge was able to analyze 18,420 people who made over 200,000 happiness ratings playing his smart phone game, and he found that players made the same kinds of decisions and reported the same levels of happiness that participants made in his lab - despite the fact that they weren't playing with real money.
"Their happiness still depended on their previous decisions and the outcomes of those decisions, showing the link to their expectations, in exactly the same way as in the lab," said Rutledge.
But before you resolve to permanently lower your expectations for everything, remember that we actually can get a pretty reliable low-grade buzz from high expectations. For example, consider the joy from booking airline tickets for a holiday.
"You shouldn't have low expectations for your vacation, because you won't be able to enjoy the pleasant anticipation that comes from knowing something good is going to happen," Rutledge explained. “The trade-off comes if your expectations are so high that the trip ends up disappointing you in some way”.
"In general, you want to have accurate expectations, because if you have accurate expectations you’ll make good decisions and experience a better quality of happiness," Rutledge concluded. Rutledge's findings may also have important implications for the study of depression. For instance, it's already known that people with clinical depression don't get as much pleasure from things that people normally find pleasure from. "There’s something different about how they respond to rewards or how they make decisions," said Rutledge. "Maybe that has something to do with, in general, why they feel lower in mood than most people."
Currently, Rutledge is applying his happiness equation to test people with depression and hopes to publish more research on the topic in the future. The current study was published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.