(Telegraph) Is this mathematical equation the secret to happiness?
By Laurence Dodds 2:37PM BST 06 Aug 2014
Scientists at UCL say they can predicts how happy you’ll be after any given sequence of events. Laurence Dodds submits himself to the all-seeing mathematical eye
When scientists tell you they’ve discovered a formula for happiness, and invite you to come and try it out, you expect something impressive. Giant bubbling vats of ice cream, perhaps, or electrodes strapped to the temple of a Buddhist yogi.
The reality is a small room in the basement of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London, containing two computers, a hospital bed, and a plastic lottery ball machine left over from a previous experiment.
Volunteers in the actual tests got to lie down in the giant Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine, but that extravagance is denied me; it’s all booked up today.
“If we want to understand human happiness, we have to start with something where we can control precisely the things we think will determine it,” explains Dr Robb Rutledge.
His team – backed up by the Wellcome Trust and the Max Planck Society – was looking for an equation which could express how mood fluctuates with short term events.
“You miss the bus, or you have to wait in line a couple of extra minutes,” he says. “That’s what we’re trying to model. The fact that expectations affect happiness is no surprise – the question is, how, and by how much?”
To find out, a computer takes me through a deck of 150 cards, shuffled in random order. Each one gives me the option to settle for a certain reward or to gamble for a bigger one at risk of a loss.
Despite my suspicions, there’s no trickery – the gamble really is a 50 per cent chance – but the deals on offer vary greatly, as do the worth of the gambles.
Sometimes, you can’t lose, and rewards far outweigh the risks, while at other times there are no good options and you must roll the dice simply to get away with £0.
Every few cards, I rate my happiness on a sliding scale. Imagine how unhappy I was when got to the end and found I’d doubled my money but could not claim it due to pesky journalistic ethics.
The research team knew that people’s reactions to their wins and losses would be coloured by what their perceived to be possible from each card.
Still, they were surprised by just how pronounced – and how predictable – it was. Bad hands with big potential losses made subjects feel lucky just to escape with £0, and they rated their happiness upwards even though they have gained nothing.
But when that same zero was the worst option in a hand of potential gains, they rated downwards because they felt they had missed an opportunity.
A parallel experiment found simply making a gamble – that is, creating an expectation of reward – made people happier, even if they were never told its outcome.