Space & Innovation

Math Equation Reveals Secret to Happiness

British researchers develop mathematical model for assessing and predicting happy feelings.

Interesting news out of London this week: Not only is there a recipe for happiness, there's an exact mathematical equation.

Well, kind of: A cross-disciplinary team of researchers at University College London has developed a mathematical model for assessing and even predicting happiness, taking into account variables like expectations, risk, reward and guilt. They've actually been working on the issue for a few years now.

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In 2014, the UCL researchers debuted an equation designed to predict happiness under certain conditions. This week, they followed up with an improved equation published in the journal Nature Communications. The new equation takes into account additional social factors, and it looks like this:

There you have it, an equation for happiness. If you speak math, you can get the full key to the equation on the journal page. But basically, the equation is a hard-number way to express the intriguing findings of several experiments.

For the study, 47 volunteers -- who did not know one another -- were asked to complete a series of tasks that involved splitting into small groups and making wagers. When test subjects won or lost a wager, they would be informed whether or not their partners also won or lost that particular wager.

In a separate task, subjects were asked how they would like to split up a small amount of money with another person they had just met. Throughout the experiment, participants were asked how happy they felt at various intervals.

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The researchers found some interesting correlations. People who lost a wager felt less happy when their partner won a wager, a difference that could be attributed to envy. Similarly, those that won their wager felt less happy when their partner lost, which could be attributed to guilt.

The wager results also impacted how generous people were in the subsequent divvying of money. In fact, the researchers could regularly predict how generous a person would be -- and how happy they felt -- by crunching the numbers from the wagers. The bottom line: Inequality reduces happiness.

"Our equation can predict exactly how happy people will be, based not only on what happens to them, but also what happens to the people around them," said co-lead author Robb Rutledge, on the UCL page. "On average we are less happy if others get more or less than us...."

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The happiness equation might seem a little unwieldy, but it's the kind of thing that happens when scientists from different disciplines run into each other at the university cafeteria. The UCL team includes researchers from the Institute of Neurology and Max Planck Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research.