“Pursuit of Happiness” by AquaSixio on Deviantart

Sometimes, we go through situations thinking when we reach the end of the road the outcome will feel gloom. But sometimes, the exact opposite happens and we’re flooded with absolute joy, the kind of which we couldn’t have experienced were we to expect that outcome. In a word, this is called surprise. Neuroscientists looking to build a mathematical model for happiness (one of those studies again), found that there are two highly important factors that can make a person happy: surprise and expectations.

“Happiness is not about how well you’re doing in general, but rather if you’re doing better than expected,” said study author and neuroscientist Robb Rutledge of the Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing.

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That’s one way of summing things, at least. According to the equation the researchers built, if you went to a restaurant having low expectations about the quality of the food there, only to find it turned out to be delicious, you’ll end up feeling a lot happier than you would expecting it to be average.

“Most of our senses are much more tuned to changes in things than to levels, and the same is true for happiness,” said economist George Loewenstein at Carnegie Mellon University, who was not involved in the study. “This ensures that however successful we are, we are always going to be driving for more.”

Balancing expectations for a happier self

Mr. Loewenstein seems to have struck an important chord. Is happiness nothing but an evolutionary trick? It may actually be, indeed. No matter how high up the ladder we are, no matter how ‘perfect’ everything seems to be around us, there will be moments when a person will feel down, even if he has everything he needs, materially or spiritually. So, if happiness is a reward, unhappiness is a driver keeping us away from staying in one place, mentally or otherwise. Unhappiness may be what makes the world go round and what makes humanity evolve. But I digress.

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The team performed tests on people with depression – the most vulnerable group to happiness shifts and the prime recipients of better treatment as a result of research that investigates what ‘makes’ happiness. While playing a gambling game, the 26 participants were also subjected to a MRI scanner that gauged their brain activity. On average, each participant left the experiment with a net profit (how convenient), but their self-reported happiness didn’t increase between the beginning and end of the tests. What did contribute to happiness was having a good chance of earning money or getting an unexpected reward.

“We’re happy when we have a rosy view of the future, but we’re also happy that the present exceeds what our expectations were,” Loewenstein said.

Another finding was that past rewards had less of an impact as time passed. The researchers wanted, however, to scale their experiment, so they designed a mobile app based on the insights they gained during the MRI session. The app, downloaded and ran by 18,420 online participants, featured the same decision-making game as in the MRI experiment. Again, the model confirmed that happiness depends on how reality pans out relative to expectation.

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One might get the bright idea that lowering expectations for everything, as a rule of thumb, will help becoming happier. In doing so, however, you become unhappy in the process. How many pessimist people do you know who you can consider happy?

“People are always pursuing goals, and when they reach the goal, they don’t end up being as satisfied as they perceive they’d be–as if happiness is held out in front of us, and we never quite achieve it,” Loewenstein said.

Findings appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.