Expectation and reward: the essential science behind happiness

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The Happiness Project

Robb Rutledge is a Senior Research Associate at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London and also the Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research.

His research combines neuroimaging and computational modeling to examine how we make decisions and how the outcomes of our decisions affects our happiness.

Artists and scientists are interested in exploring the tough questions in life and sometimes they can do it better together.

This is something we hope to prove with The Happiness Project, a new production we’re opening at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe before staging at the Roundhouse in November.

The Happiness Project
I joined the project in early 2013 starting with workshops with the young people. We talked about what happiness is and what matters for happiness, identifying many of the same factors as happiness researchers.

The subjective and personal nature of happiness means that all of us know something about it, but also makes it difficult to pin it down. Fortunately, people do give similar answers when you ask them repeatedly about their happiness.

The subjective and personal nature of happiness means that all of us know something about it, but also makes it difficult to pin it down.

This consistency provides one way of exploring happiness in my role as a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London. In my experiments, participants try to win points by deciding when to take risks and are asked repeatedly, ‘how happy are you at this moment?’.

As part of this research I also helped develop an app, the Great Brain Experiment . The app offers users the chance to be part of a unique scientific experiment by playing games based on neuroscience research at UCL.

The answer from the lab and smartphone data was the same: how our happiness changes from moment to moment depends not on how well things are going but instead on whether things are going better or worse than expected.

For example I might have a decent meal at a restaurant, but my happiness can go down if the restaurant was not as good as I had expected.

Using the data from our app led to the following equation for predicting happiness:

Happiness Equation
Not only did this equation predict the feeling of happiness, but the equation predicted activity in a part of the brain called the ventral striatum.

happiness in brain

Using MRI scanners to monitor physical responses to the feeling of happiness, I took a look inside the brains of my subjects and found that the striatum (coloured in above), an area that a lot of dopamine neurons are connected to, was particularly active when subjects are going to become happier.

Dopamine does at least partly determine how happy we are about the rewards we receive, something explored in this recently published report.

Measuring happiness using scientific methods gives us one way to understand happiness. However the personal nature of happiness makes it particularly challenging to understand. Our happiness depends on our values. It also depends on our life circumstances, which differ for young people and their parents.

Happiness depends on our life circumstances, which differ for young people and their parents.

Young people may not worry about paying the family bills but a recent UNICEF report has suggested that the well-being of young people in the UK is lower than other developed countries.

School can be demanding, the social world is always changing and there’s always the little question of what to do with one’s life. But why are young people in the UK unhappy?

This is the question that led to the creation of The Happiness Project. We hope that our audiences will join the conversation and come explore happiness with us.

  • The Happiness Project previews at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from Wednesday 26 – Sunday 30 August followed by a run at the Roundhouse from Tuesday 3 – Saturday 14 November

Main Image © Tom Medwell