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, the scientists found an equation that correctly predicted the happiness of more than 18,000 people. TheAtlantic‘s Cari Romm reports:
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, 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.