Behold: The formula for happiness

Back in 2014, researchers at UCL came up with an equation to predict happiness. The formula pretty accurately predicted the happiness of 18,420 people taking part in a game via a smartphone app, leading the researchers to conclude that happiness was largely based on recent events and expectations.

Behold: The formula for happiness

Two years later, they’ve been tinkering with the equation some more, and have modified it to take two of our inherently human traits into account: guilt and jealousy. You may feel guilty if things are going demonstrably better for you than others, but if the other man’s grass is greener, you’ll likely be less content (even if he does have to spend a frustrating amount of time mowing it.)

Here’s the modified equation. Isn’t it a beaut?happiness_equation

The changes find that, broadly, inequality reduces happiness. In a small study (just 47 this time, compared to the wider app based experiment in the previous paper), volunteers were split into small groups to complete tasks. The seemingly unrelated tasks involved anonymously dividing money with another person, and monetary bets where they could see the outcomes for the other players, and how much each participant received or lost.

Asked regularly to score their happiness, the researchers were able to adapt their equation to take into account both feelings of envy and guilt. Overall, researchers found that participants were happier when they and their partner both won, or they and their partner both lost. In other words, if they won, but their partner lost, they’d feel less happy than if they had both won, and the same story was true with losses – they’d be more happy in defeat if their partner went down with them.

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These feelings didn’t seem to change based on their fondness for the person they were comparing their winnings to, suggesting that these are stable human traits, rather than relating to our own personal feelings towards any given person.  

Our equation can predict exactly how happy people will be based not only on what happens to them but also what happens to the people around them,” said co-author Dr Robb Rutledge of UCL. “On average we are less happy if others get more or less than us, but this varies a lot from person to person. Interestingly, the equation allows us to predict how generous an individual will be in a separate scenario when they are asked how they would like to split a small amount of money with another person. Based on exactly how inequality affects their happiness, we can predict which individuals will be altruistic.”

How does this relate to altruism? Well, by comparing the results of the gambling game to the money division game, the researchers were able to correlate feelings of happiness from the gambling to generosity in the money splitting. On average those whose happiness was chiefly impacted by getting more than other people would give away 30% of their money, while those who were more affected by getting less than their peers would only give away 10%.

The people who gave away half of their money when they had the opportunity showed no envy when they experienced inequality in a different task but showed a lot of guilt. By contrast, those who kept all the money for themselves displayed no signs of guilt in the other task but displayed a lot of envy,” said co-lead author of the study Archy de Berker.

“This is the first time that people’s generosity has been directly linked to how inequality affects their happiness. Economists have had difficulty explaining why some people are more generous than others, and our experiments offers an explanation. The task may prove to be a useful way of measuring empathy, which could offer insight into social disorders such as borderline personality disorder. Such methods could help us better understand certain aspects of social disorders, such as indifference to the suffering of others.”

Image: Alan O’ Rourke, used under Creative Commons

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