This Mathematical Equation Predicts Momentary Happiness

Keeping your expectations low, it seems, is key to achieving fleeting satisfaction

Photo: Manuela Larissegger/Corbis

What is the secret to achieving happiness? According to some experts, it is the following formula: 

This Mathematical Equation Predicts Momentary Happiness

As the BBC reports, researchers from the University College London say that that formula closely predicts momentary bouts of happiness. The equation is built around the relationship between risk-taking, past experiences and reward. Just as a surprisingly tasty meal at a new restaurant can bring pleasure, the researchers explained to the BBC, so, too, can looking forward to a dinner at a favorite spot. The equation, they say, balances that nuance. 

To design it, the researchers first asked 26 participants to play a simple game that involved risk-taking and potential rewards and to report how happy they were after each round, the BBC reports. To double-check those self-reported happiness values, the researchers used fMRI scans of the subjects' brains to look for activity in neural centers involved with feelings of well-being.

After devising the formula, the team recruited around 18,000 people to play a risk-reward game on their smartphones. The formula accurately predicated these new subjects' reactions. They were most pleased not when they simply racked up large amounts of points in the game, SBS describes, but when those winnings compared favorably to their recent wins or losses. Keeping expectations in check, the researchers found, created the reward of being pleasantly surprised. 

"It is often said that you will be happier if your expectations are lower," they told SBS. "We find that there is some truth to this: lower expectations make it more likely that an outcome will exceed those expectations and have a positive impact on happiness."

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.