How do you become happier? It’s a question that’s engrossed philosophers, life coaches and thinkers for millennia.
It asked people to rate their level of happiness, then take part in one of four games: How fast do I learn? How do I decide? How fast should I go? What makes me happy?
Users also had to say in advance how they thought they would perform in each.
More than 18,000 people played the games, which gave the scientists insight into expectations of the players, performance, and happiness.
In the past, things such as a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, meditation and exercise were seen as the key ways to feel happy.
However, the UCL-led team and Robb Rutledge (a cognitive and computational neuroscientist and professor) discovered that this doesn’t work for everyone.
Instead they found that happiness correlates strongly with expectation level - but only when it’s in the sweet spot.
If you lower your expectations, it increases the chances of a pleasant surprise. However, you will feel miserable if you keep lowering your expectations, so it’s all about finding a happy medium.
Crucially, having too-high expectations is a problem for happiness; the scientists suggest that it’s not the best idea to tell your friend that a restaurant has “the best food of all time” because it raises expectations while eliminating the element of surprise.
They also suggest that unlocking the secret to happiness is hard because expectations influence our decisions.
“If you always expect the worst, it’s difficult to make good choices,” Rutledge said.” When things go better than expected, that’s information your brain can use to revise your expectations upward so you make even better choices in the future,” he continued.
They also noticed that events temporarily affect happiness. Called a “hedonic treadmill.”
”You might think that there is something wrong with you if you don’t feel lasting happiness about a promotion, but time-limited joy is an adaptation that helps your brain adjust to your circumstances, so you are ready to make your next move,” Rutledge said.
Essentially, it is a tool to let us know if things are going well while allowing us to take the following steps.
Five years ago, Rutledge and his associates created a happiness equation that linked equality to feeling happy. Finding inequality reduces happiness, but they are now treating happiness as a tool.
The equation was derived from a gambling game with rewards against decisions and results that influence happiness.
Ruthledge notes that happiness is “complicated” and that it’s different for everyone.
“In our ongoing research, we are trying to capture this subjectivity and get a complete view of what happiness is,” he said in part on The Conversation.
So utilizing a game became a focus, building on the fact that people find joy from popular games such as Candy Crush and Fortnite was an integral way to figure out the “complexities of happiness.”
Rutledge and the team understand that there won’t be one particular formula for happiness. But with continued research such as the findings in The Happiness Project, scientists can get a step closer to explain the factors that matter to us on the quest for happiness.