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Would You Be Happier if You Lowered Your Expectations?

An equation for happiness revealed by smartphone games.

Key points

  • Research shows that happiness depends not on how well you are doing, but whether you are doing better than expected.
  • Happiness can be thought of as a tool, not a goal.
  • The pandemic's impact on mental health reinforces the importance of understanding well-being.

Most people would like to be happier. But it isn’t always easy to know how to achieve that goal. Is there an equation for happiness? Many formulas have been suggested. Get enough sleep. Exercise. Meditate. Help others. Spend time with friends and family. On average, all of these things are linked to happiness. But they don’t work for everyone.

Happiness is really complicated. It can change quickly and it’s different for everyone in ways that scientists don’t understand. In our ongoing research, we are trying to get a more complete view of what happiness is.

Happiness surveys can only tell us so much, summarizing with a few questions how people feel in general. However, we usually don’t know what people were doing a few minutes earlier, even though we know it might be important for understanding how happy people say they are.

So we turned to smartphones, which billions of people are using almost constantly. People often believe that smartphones are bad for happiness, but many of us enjoy popular games including Candy Crush Saga, Fortnite, and Among Us. How we feel can change quickly while we play games, providing an opportunity to gather detailed information about the complexities of happiness.

We recently launched a smartphone app, The Happiness Project, which anyone can download for free. In less than five minutes, anyone can play one of four games to learn about and contribute to our ongoing happiness research. So far, thousands of people have played, answering the question “How happy are you right now?” over 1 million times, and teaching us a few things about how happiness works along the way.

Robb Rutledge
Smartphone games can reveal how happiness works.
Source: Robb Rutledge

An equation for happiness

So far, we’ve managed to work out that expectations matter a lot. In 18,420 people playing a simple risky decision game on their phones, we discovered that we could predict their happiness using the following equation:

Robb Rutledge
An equation for happiness.
Source: Robb Rutledge

In short, we found that happiness depends not on how well you are doing, but whether you are doing better than expected. Our research shows how high expectations can be a problem. Clearly, it’s not a good idea to tell a friend that they will love the gift you are about to give them. Lowering expectations at the last moment increases the probability of a positive surprise. There are also times, such as on holiday, when lowering your expectations might not be a bad idea. After all, your expectations might be a bit unrealistic if you chose your holiday destination based on a friend’s rave review. You may enjoy yourself more if you don’t expect everything to go perfectly.

The problem with using this strategy to hack your own happiness is that expectations about future events also influence happiness. If you make plans to catch up with a friend after work, you may be unhappy if they suddenly cancel. But expecting your friend to cancel won’t make you happy. You might be a little happier the whole day if you look forward to seeing them, even if there is some risk that things don’t work out.

Another reason that it’s hard to hack your happiness is that expectations are really important for decision-making. If you always expect the worst, it’s difficult to make good choices. When things go better than expected, that’s information your brain can use to revise your expectations upward so you make even better choices in the future. Realistic expectations are generally best. In fact, we've recently discovered that learning can be more important for happiness than any rewards we actually receive. Given how important learning is for making good decisions, it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that it is also really important for happiness.

Tool vs. goal

Another lesson from our smartphone games is that most events don’t affect happiness for long. This is referred to as the “hedonic treadmill.” You might think that there is something wrong with you if you don’t feel lasting happiness after achieving a big goal (graduating from college, for example), but your happiness quickly returning to typical levels is an adaptation that helps your brain adjust to your circumstances so you are ready to make your next move. In uncertain environments, including both smartphone games and real life, what happened minutes ago is often irrelevant to the task at hand.

The ephemeral nature of happiness means we might be better off thinking about happiness differently. Happiness is a tool, not a goal. It can help us better understand what we care about, what we value. It can tell us whether things are going surprisingly well, which could motivate us to keep going. When our happiness drops, it may be a sign that we should try something new.

The pandemic has had a big impact on mental health. It’s never been more important to understand well-being. We don’t know why some people stay upset longer than others. We don’t know why uncertainty is really stressful for some people but not others. We're using The Happiness Project app to track how well-being changes over weeks and months as thousands of people around the world play our games. In one game, you play a pirate digging for treasure and you know whether the next block of trials has opportunities to get gold coins or instead is full of rusty cans that lose you points. For some people, information about the future has a big impact on how they feel right now. Others aren't as bothered. There will never be one formula for happiness, but science can help explain the different factors that matter for happiness in each and every one of us.

This post was adapted from a post that appeared on The Conversation.


Rutledge RB, Skandali N, Dayan P, Dolan RJ (2014) A neural and computational model of momentary subjective well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 111, 12252-12257.

Blain B, Rutledge RB (2020) Momentary subjective well-being depends on learning and not reward. eLife 9, e57977.

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