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Can Happiness be Measured by an Equation? Scientists Say Yes

With research involving 18,000 participants all over the world, the team believes that moment-to-moment happiness could be predicted by the recent history of a participant’s expectations, specifically concerning choices that could either lead to good or bad results. The main focus of the study was pinpointing how the choices people make as well as the consequences of their decisions influenced moment-to-moment happiness.

Before delving further into the methods by which the researchers obtained their results, it is important to note that they found no positive correlation between monetary gain and happiness. They suggest that more money is merely a sign that things are going better than expected, not that participants were necessarily happy.

Tests on the participants started by asking 26 of them to complete a particular choice-making task in which the results could render monetary gains and losses. Participants were repeatedly asked how happy they were throughout the task. In addition, the team also measured neural activity in the participants using a functional MRI system. Together with the answers of the participants and the data provided by the MRI, researchers were able to create a mathematical model that measured happiness to rewards and expectations. After the first stage, the team then tested the model on 18,420 participants using a smartphone app with a game known as “The Great Brain Experiment.” Instead of winning and losing money, gains and losses were recorded using a point-scoring system.

Results showed the equation built by the team during the first phase of the study still worked in the second stage. Scientists involved in the study remarked that the fact that the happiness equation worked in both stages suggests there is much value to studying human well-being. They were also surprised that expectations were found to have a more significant role in pinpointing happiness, noting that “rewards associated with life decisions are often not realized for a long time, and our results suggest expectations related to these decisions, good and bad, have a big effect on happiness.”

Scientists also saw the MRI was able to observe neural signals in the striatum of the brain that could be used to determine momentary happiness during the choices and results part of the task. In addition, researchers also found that dopamine plays a role in happiness. Signals in the striatum are partially reliant on dopamine to function properly. If these findings hold consistent in further studies, they could have significant implications for patients suffering from mood disorders.

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Gary Starkman Dr. Starkman, a top Neurologist in NYC, is the Medical Director and founder of New York Neurology Associates. He is Board Certified in Neurology with a subspecialty certification in Pain Medicine.

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