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Now an equation to predict happiness

It is natural for all of us to chase ‘happiness.’ But what is it that makes us do this? According to a team of scientists at the University College London (UCL) in the UK the mental state broadly referred to as happiness is in fact a product of the decisions we make and their consequences. Sure, but did we need scientists to say this? No. But what’s new about this study is the discovery of an equation that can calculate how happy people you will say you are, based on rewards and expectations.

Involving 18,000 participants from around the world the research project says that an individual’s recent history of expectations from the choices he makes (that is whether the outcome would be good or bad) is what determines his level of happiness. The results of this study could help doctors address issues like mood disorder more effectively as it pinpoints the triggers of happiness.

Among a number of unexpected findings, the researchers discovered that accumulation of wealth in itself does not lead to happiness. “Momentary happiness is not a reflection of how well things are going but instead whether they are going better than expected.” So, if you suddenly found out that an old aunt has left you with a fortune, you are sure to feel a great deal ‘happier’ than a salary increment for which you slogged for a whole year!

At the start of the study 26 participants were asked to complete a decision-making task in which the choices they made could lead to monetary gains and losses. Even as they worked on their task, they were repeatedly asked, “how happy are you right now?” Alongside, using functional MRI, the doctors observed the neural activity of the participants. The answers from the participants and the data from the MRI were then used to create a computational model that related self-reported happiness to recent rewards and expectations.

In the next stage of the study the researchers tested this model on 18,420 participants with a smartphone game called “The Great Brain Experiment,” which replaced winning and losing money with a point-scoring system. This exercise proved that the equation the researchers had derived during the study’s initial decision-making task was valid and was indeed could be used to predict happiness. Results from the functional MRI showed that the neural signals generated in an area of the brain called the striatum by the decisions and outcomes of the task could be used to predict changes in momentary happiness.

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