Ditch the questionable self-help books and grab a pen and a piece of paper, because neuroscientists have calculated a mathematical formula for happiness. It's (t)=w0+w1∑j=1tγt−jCRj+w2∑j=1tγt−jEVj+w3∑j=1tγt−jRPEj.
Not to be confused with Elon Musk's son (that's X Æ A-Xii), the 'equation of happiness' can be deciphered as: lower your expectations, but not so far it leaves you miserable. Do that, the team from University College London discovered, and you'll experience optimum happiness.
They cracked the code using a specially-designed gaming app – called the Happiness Project – paired with MRI scans. So far, more than 18,000 people have played the game, which is based on decision-making, supplying the neuroscientists with essential data about how factors like risk, learning, effort, and control relate to happiness.
When it comes to cultivating happiness, expectations matter the most. "In 18,420 people playing a simple risky decision game on their phones, we showed that happiness depended not on how well they were doing, but whether they were doing better than expected," lead researcher Robb Rutledge, honorary affiliate professor at UCL, wrote in The Conversation. (continued below)
However, there's a lower limit to this trick. While reducing your expectations in the moment increases the likelihood of a positive surprise, chronically belittling your expectations is counterproductive, the team discovered. "If you always expect the worst, it's difficult to make good choices," says Professor Rutledge. Be realistic, not pessimistic.
"If you make plans to meet up with a buddy after work, chances are you'll be sad in the event that they all of the sudden cancel," he added. "But expecting your friend to cancel won't make you happy – you might be a little happier the whole day if you look forward to seeing them, even if there is some risk that things don't work out."
When you experience happiness, anticipate that the feeling will be fleeting. "Another lesson from our smartphone games is that most events don't affect happiness for long," said Professor Rutledge. "Time-limited joy is an adaptation that helps your brain adjust to your circumstances so you are ready to make your next move."
The takeaway? Manage your expectations, and think of happiness as a tool – not a goal. "It can help us better understand what we care about, what we value," said Professor Rutledge. "It can tell us whether things are going surprisingly well, which could motivate us to keep going at key moments. When our happiness drops, it may be a sign that we should try something new."
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