Promising Practices Promising PracticesPromising Practices
A forum for government's best ideas and most innovative leaders.

This Is Literally the Formula for Happiness

ARCHIVES
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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 Galbraith 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.

Brian Resnick

Brian Resnick is a staff correspondent at National Journal. Before joining, Brian spent a year at The Atlantic as a fellow, where he produced content and wrote for TheAtlantic.com. In addition to The Atlantic, his writing has been featured in Popular Mechanics and The News Journal, Delaware's main daily newspaper. Brian graduated cum laude from the University of Delaware in 2011 with a B.A. in psychology. In college, he served as a managing editor for the student newspaper, The Review, and received the E.A Nickerson award for excellence in journalism. He comes from Long Island, New York.

FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Going Agile:Revolutionizing Federal Digital Services Delivery

    Here’s one indication that times have changed: Harriet Tubman is going to be the next face of the twenty dollar bill. Another sign of change? The way in which the federal government arrived at that decision.

    Download
  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

    Download
  • Featured Content from RSA Conference: Dissed by NIST

    Learn more about the latest draft of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology guidance document on authentication and lifecycle management.

    Download
  • GBC Issue Brief: The Future of 9-1-1

    A Look Into the Next Generation of Emergency Services

    Download
  • GBC Survey Report: Securing the Perimeters

    A candid survey on cybersecurity in state and local governments

    Download
  • The New IP: Moving Government Agencies Toward the Network of The Future

    Federal IT managers are looking to modernize legacy network infrastructures that are taxed by growing demands from mobile devices, video, vast amounts of data, and more. This issue brief discusses the federal government network landscape, as well as market, financial force drivers for network modernization.

    Download
  • eBook: State & Local Cybersecurity

    CenturyLink is committed to helping state and local governments meet their cybersecurity challenges. Towards that end, CenturyLink commissioned a study from the Government Business Council that looked at the perceptions, attitudes and experiences of state and local leaders around the cybersecurity issue. The results were surprising in a number of ways. Learn more about their findings and the ways in which state and local governments can combat cybersecurity threats with this eBook.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.