The equation for happiness

As the world starts to move from focusing on growth to wellbeing a group of neuroscientists decided to test people’s brains to check whether ‘happiness’ occurred as predicted. The BBC reports that they found

“We can look at past decisions and outcomes and predict exactly how happy you will say you are at any point in time,” said lead author Dr Robb Rutledge from University College London.

The experiment tested decisions under uncertainty, which is a well-researched topic in economics. The best model we have at the moment derives from Kahneman and Tversky’s development of prospect theory. At the core is the idea that our happiness depends on changes from our current situation. For example, glorious sunshine is only exciting if you don’t see it every day.

The twist that the neuroscientists confirmed is that our happiness at an outcome depends not only on where we start but where we expected to get to. If the weather forecast was great then a beautiful day isn’t such a cause of joy as it would be if rain had been forecast.

Studies such as these are crucial for informing our models of choice. Those models can seem esoteric at first but they are at the heart of arguments over alcohol regulation, plain packaging, compulsory pension saving and so on. This is the primary research that will define our future freedoms.

h/t: @chagelund

2 replies
  1. gettingwell
    gettingwell says:

    The study is another example of researchers inappropriately ignoring the feeling and lower brains when allegedly researching emotions. Only thinking brain areas were measured and considered in the researchers’ efforts to determine the subjects’ happiness.

    Efforts to determine emotions by thinking brain measurements seldom reveal what people actually feel. What’s measured is a construct of people’s thinking brains – a proxy for their emotions – that may not have anything to do with what people actually feel at the time.

    It may be more appropriate to characterize the subjects’ self-reports of happiness in terms such as “this is what I think I should tell the researchers about what I think I should feel.”

    What we think we should feel may not be what we actually feel. Feeling brain measurements need to be taken and considered when subjects in an experiment self-report degrees of happiness if the researchers intend to draw conclusions about feelings of happiness.

    “..we show that emotional reactivity in the form of momentary happiness in response to outcomes of a probabilistic reward task is explained not by current task earnings, but by the combined influence of recent reward expectations and prediction errors arising from those expectations.”

    It’s a thinking brain exercise of expectations and prediction errors to find that “..moment-to-moment happiness reflects not just how well things are going, but whether things are going better than expected..”

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