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Scientists developed an effective equation that predicts momentary happiness in individuals, and made the surprising finding that expectation has a lot to do with how good we feel.

My two children are loudly singing along with that "Happy" song from Despicable Me right now. "Clap along if you feel that happiness is the truth," its catchy tune commands. Almost everybody agrees that happiness is desirable and important. What exactly makes us happy though, and can we predict happiness?

A group of scientists from University College London (UCL) in Britain investigated this in detail. They noted that the "happiness of individuals is an important metric for societies", but "although happiness is influenced by life circumstances and population demographics such as wealth, we know little about how the cumulative influence of daily life events are aggregated into subjective feelings".

With the help of more than 18,000 participants from all over the world, they set out to figure out how daily decisions and their outcomes affect happiness. Then, they came up with a revolutionary new mathematical equation that predicts momentary happiness. 

The Science Of Happiness

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, started with 26 participants. They were asked to engage in a decision-making task that could lead to monetary gains or losses. The participants chose between guaranteed rewards and risky potential rewards. Throughout the process, the study subject were asked how happy they were feeling at that particular time. Their answers were then followed up with functional MRI scans. 

The reported happiness scores correlated with activity in two brain areas, as shown on the functional MRI scans. These areas were the ventral striatum and the insula. The former is an important source of dopamine neurons, while the latter represents a center that regulates various emotions, including happiness. Together, these brain areas give a picture of both overall happiness and changes in a person's happiness levels.

These findings enabled the scientists to come up with a complex equation that definitely won't make you happy if you're not too good at math. 

Next, the team tested the equation out on 18,420 people participating in the Great Brain Experiment smartphone game, an app that was already shown to be reliable for studying cognitive behavior. This experiment showed that the equation the scientists had developed during the first stage of the study was indeed effective at predicting happiness, or "momentary subjective well-being", in participants.

Big Expectations

Dr Robb Rutledge, the study's lead author, said he was surprised with the extent expectations played a role in predicting happiness. "The rewards associated with life decisions [...] are often not realized for a long time, and our results suggest expectations related to these decisions, good and bad, have a big effect on happiness," he explained.

He continued: "Expectations also affect happiness even before we learn the outcome of a decision. If you have plans to meet a friend at your favorite restaurant, those positive expectations may increase your happiness as soon as you make the plan. The new equation captures these different effects of expectations and allows happiness to be predicted based on the combined effects of many past events."

A deeper understanding of the factors that predict happiness could be of tremendous benefit to people suffering from mood disorders. It could also be used to inform policy makers and predict happiness at a society-wide level. 

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