Secret of happiness? Don’t hope for too much

Researchers at University College London say joy is often time limited

Researchers found that expectations about future events also influence happiness. Getty Images
Researchers found that expectations about future events also influence happiness. Getty Images

Expectations can strongly influence how people feel, scientists researching happiness at University College London in the UK have found.

Experts at UCL have devised a smartphone app called The Happiness Project, which allows users to play one of four games.

Players' responses to the different scenarios are collated by researchers to better understand the complexities of happiness.

Prof Robb Rutledge, a cognitive neuroscientist at UCL, said happiness is complicated and prone to changing quickly.

“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,” he wrote in The Conversation.

“Our research shows how high expectations can be a problem.

"Clearly, it’s not a good idea to tell a friend that they will love the gift you are about to give them. Lowering expectations at the last moment increases the probability of a positive surprise.”

But Mr Rutledge said it’s not always so straightforward, because “expectations about future events also influence happiness”.

“If you make plans to catch up with a friend after work, you may be unhappy if they suddenly cancel.

“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,” he said.

Prof Rutledge highlighted the important of realistic expectations and their importance in decision making.

But researchers also found that joy is often time limited and “an adaptation that helps your brain adjust to your circumstances so you are ready to make your next move”.

It is hoped that the information taken from those playing the smartphone app will enable experts to write equations for happiness.

“There will never be one formula for happiness, but science can help explain the different factors that matter for happiness in each and every one of us,” he said.

Updated: May 25, 2021 03:36 PM

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