Are you happy? Scientists suggest they can compute the answer.

A team of researchers at University College London have come up with a new one-line equation to predict people’s happiness from moment to moment.

Their work, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, offers a mathematical solution to explain a fickle and elusive human emotion.

The equation suggests that momentary happiness hinges on individuals’ expectations, not on the rewards of their decisions. In other words, you’re likely to be happier only if the outcome of a particular decision turns out to be better than you had anticipated.

But the formula for happiness is not as simple as merely lowering your expectations, says lead author Robb Rutledge. There’s a twist to the equation – even making a decision for which you have positive expectations will increase your current happiness.

Say, for instance, you make plans to have dinner with friends at your favourite restaurant, Rutledge explains. The anticipation of a good time can make you happy, even before the event actually happens.

“At the time of an outcome, it might be better to have low expectations, but at an earlier time before then, it might be better to have high expectations…. That kind of means there’s not really a secret that you can [manipulate] these expectations to boost your happiness,” Rutledge says. “You can’t kind of, you know, just lower your expectations and that solves everything.”

The equation was developed by measuring the brain activity of 26 individuals and frequently asking them to rate their happiness while they completed a gambling task. The researchers then tested their formula through a smartphone game on 18,420 participants from around the world.

Interestingly, the formula for happiness appears to be universal. The researchers accurately predicted the participants’ happiness, regardless of their backgrounds. “There’s more in common than perhaps I thought there would be originally,” Rutledge says.

The study was funded by German research organization Max Planck Society, the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, and Wellcome Trust, a British charitable foundation.

Rutledge notes that the ability to predict people’s happiness may help in the search for ways to treat depression and other mood disorders. It also offers mathematical foundations for the universal question of what makes individuals happy.

“Part of it is just getting a better idea of what happiness is because happiness is something we all care about, we’re all interested in,” he says.

The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Aug. 05 2014, 3:31 PM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, Aug. 05 2014, 3:37 PM EDT