Deciphering Happiness Through a Dumb IPhone Game

Researchers at University College London want to know about my happiness level. I’m playing an uncomplicated game on my iPhone that’s part of an app called the Great Brain Experiment. My goal is quite simple: Get as many points as I can. To do this, I can either take a guaranteed allotment of points or spin a wheel for the chance to get more&mdashor lose more, which I’m quickly finding is often the case.

After each round, the game pauses and asks me how I feel. This is absurd, I think after the first round; my emotions aren’t dictated by how many stupid points I get in a stupid video game. But then comes the fourth round, when I successfully win several hundred points without losing any. When the game asks me how I feel, I want to write back: “Pretty damn good.”

“See, when the outcome is better than you expected, you’ll get happier,” says Robb Rutledge, a senior research associate at University College London and one of the cognitive neuroscientists who came up with the Great Brain Experiment. The app has seven other games that test everything from memory to the ability to work under pressure, with all the data going back to Rutledge and his colleagues to use in their research. But right now he’s focused on the game called What Makes Me Happy?

Rutledge isn’t talking about big-picture happiness. He doesn’t care how I feel about the future or if I’m content with my life. No, he’s studying the more fleeting concept of momentary happiness, or why certain rewards lift our mood more than others. In a paper recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, he even invented a “happiness equation” that can predict just how big that lift will be.

The happiness equation (which looks like this) accounts for people’s expectations for an event, the actual outcome, and how recently it took place. It predicts where on a zero-to-100 sliding scale of happiness their emotions are likely to fall.

To develop the equation, Rutledge and his colleagues asked 26 people to play a game similar to the one I’m playing on my iPhone, but they rewarded them with real money. They tested their laboratory findings through the app, which was released a year ago and has been played by nearly 100,000 people all over the world. “We weren’t sure if the app would work because people weren’t getting monetary rewards, just points,” he says. “But actually, people reacted exactly the same way to the points.”

While it’s true that people are happier when an outcome exceeds their expectations, Rutledge found that after a few rounds of the game, the happiness boost wears off. I was really excited by my point windfall in round four, but by round seven I’d lost a chunk of points in one badly timed spin and was feeling frustrated.

“It’s kind of weird to think about, right?” says Rutledge. “Overall you still have a lot of points, but you’re focused on the most recent transaction.” That’s why, if someone asks you on a Friday how your week is going, you probably wouldn’t think to tell them about the $5 you found on the sidewalk on Monday.

Rutledge may just be focusing on short-term mood swings, but his findings help explain why bigger life changes don’t always make us as happy as we assume. “Let’s say you’re given a higher salary at work,” Rutledge says. “At first that makes you really happy, but after a while you’ll probably adapt to it and feel the same way you did before.” That may explain why so many studies exploring the relationship between wealth and happiness have failed to find a strong, conclusive link.

Here’s another thing Rutledge discovered about happiness: In some circumstances, our expectations for something matter more than the outcome. In the context of the game, if I make a choice I expect will bring me lots of points, I feel satisfied that I made the right decision even if I’m never told how many points I actually got. In life, Rutledge says, “it means that if you have a vacation coming up, you might be in a better mood for the month leading up to it.” If the vacation turns out to be a dud—maybe it rains every day you’re in Hawaii—you’ll be really disappointed. But you will have also spent an entire month feeling cheerful. “So do you keep your expectations low so you’re not disappointed? Or keep them high and feel good for a month?” he asks. “Which is better? It’s hard to say.”

That’s interesting, but we’re still just talking about vacations and video games. A few well-placed bets might perk me up, but they’re hardly going change my overall mood or make me live my life differently. At the end of the game, I’ve racked up more than 800 points—and I have no idea what that means or if it even matters.

Then the game tells me that I’m better than 82 percent of people who’ve played it. I have to admit, I feel pretty happy about that.

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