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Can Equations Predict Happiness?

Want to be happy? There’s an equation for that, according to British neuroscientists. In a study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [1]the scientists found an equation that correctly predicted the happiness of more than 18,000 people. The Atlantic‘s Cari Romm reports [2]:

In the first leg of the study, the researchers developed the equation by having a group of volunteers play decision-making games, rewarding certain choices with small amounts of money. Every few rounds, participants were asked to rate their happiness on a sliding scale, while their neurological responses to the rewards were measured with MRI scans.

In the second leg, the team tested the equation on a larger audience by turning the decision-making task into a smartphone game [3], drawing players by the thousands. The results were as their model had predicted: When players expected a reward, they were less happy to receive it than if they hadn’t expected anything at all.

After compiling their research, the neuroscientists came up with this equation as an accurate predictor of happiness:


However, there’s an important catch to this equation that we must consider. As The Atlantic puts it, the neuroscientists’ research “measures only immediate reward, not long-term satisfaction.” The above equation specifically measures your response to expectations and rewards (or disappointments)—not your overall metaphysical state of being. How could one measure and quantify the sort of deep, value-based happiness that truly motivates humans long-term? Maybe there’s an equation for that; but it seems unlikely.

The equation above seems to be describing something a bit different from real “happiness.” It identifies something our society constantly identifies with happiness, but is in actuality quite different: namely, “pleasure.” It can contribute to happiness, but pleasure is neither necessary nor sufficient for real happiness. It’s defined most often as a feeling or sensation of happiness, synonymous with satisfaction, enjoyment, gratification—all the more temporary facets of “happiness.” It describes how you feel in a current moment.

But Aristotle put “pleasure” and “happiness” into very different boxes. Happiness in his conception is the highest good, the end to which we all aspire. But happiness, in his mind, requires ethical living: pursuing the supreme good necessitates that we fulfill our vocation as human beings, with virtue and integrity. Moral virtue is an integral part of happiness—and virtue helps us cultivate a proper response to “pain” and “pleasure” in life. Thus, “pleasure” is not seen as a good in and of itself—it is a facet of life that must be navigated, considered, and rightly responded to, in the larger pursuit of true happiness.


To Aristotle, happiness is an activity: a pursuit, not a passive response to life circumstances or expectations. The word eudaimonia (happiness) carries with it the idea of “flourishing” or “success.” This is something we do, not something we merely feel. In contrast, “pleasure” is exactly that: a feeling. And whereas we may be able to quantify cognitive responses to pleasure and pain, we cannot automatically turn such things into real “happiness.”

Our lost understanding of eudaimonia has turned us into the sort of people who seek out happiness in circumstantial or experiential mediums. And this seeking implies that we have already lost something—something that would enable us to grasp and retain happiness, no matter the pleasures or pains that plague our lives.

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#1 Comment By Marcus Regulus On August 7, 2014 @ 10:56 am

“If it feels good, DO IT!”

Sic transit Gloria something or other.

#2 Comment By FedeV On August 7, 2014 @ 12:13 pm

If you read the actual paper (and not the commentary about it) the claims are far more modest and less sweeping than you think. They are predicting how happy someone is following certain events.

The actual model they fit is just a linear sum of exponential decays – which is a fancy way of saying that how happy you are now has more to do with things that happened to you recently.

#3 Comment By cdugga On August 7, 2014 @ 5:38 pm

I like the idea that we might qualitatively be able to adjust our lives so that we might encounter pleasure more often even though pleasure might not be the goal of our activities, and that the unexpected pleasures that pop up (along the linear sum of exponential decays?)tend to make us happy and are quantifiable. Variety is the spice of life? We have already found that repetitive activities tend to atrophy the mind, even pleasurable activities, while engaging in new activity and learning help to build up our gray matter. It seems logical that engaging in new activities and ways of thinking provide more of a chance for us to attain those unexpected pleasures that might also expand our minds and encourage happiness. “Comfort kills, and you don’t need that car” Sum 80’s punk. Was that Plato or Aristotle that virtually said that, or said that part of virtue was an active mind and healthy body much more than material acquisition? We are constantly manipulated to seek the pleasures somebody is selling, and if we use likes to spark our daily lives it seems unlikely we will attain much lasting happiness. Some people in the business of telling us what happiness is are the same ones selling us that happiness. And it really does not matter if we actually attain a personal happiness as long as we keep buying what they are selling for that transient hit of instant gratification. Like, it doesn’t really matter if the rat dies happy or sad as long as we can get him to keep pressing the buttons we want him to.