Study: Element of Surprise Plays Big Role In Happiness

Pharrell Williams accepts the award for video of the year for “Happy” during the 2014 BET Awards in Los Angeles June 29. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
Pharrell Williams accepts the award for video of the year for “Happy” during the 2014 BET Awards in Los Angeles June 29. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Do you remember the last time you were dreading something, only to have it turn out to be a pleasant surprise? Maybe it was a bad summer blockbuster you were forced to watch, or a blind date set up by your parents.

You turn up, grumbling and prepared to hate every second of it. But then a funny thing happens: You crack a smile–laugh out loud, even–and before you know it, you’re having a grand old time.

It turns out that the element of surprise has a big impact on how we feel from moment to moment and that we’re happier when satisfied unexpectedly instead of certain of a positive outcome in advance, according to a new mathematical model of happiness. A study of this was published online Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Happiness is not about how well you’re doing in general, but rather if you’re doing better than expected,” said study author and neuroscientist Robb Rutledge of the Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing.

For instance, say you go to a restaurant where the food was the best you’ve ever had. According to the happiness equation, you would actually be happier at the end of the meal if you had expected it to be just average, as opposed to assuming it would be as delicious as it was.

“Most of our senses are much more tuned to changes in things than to levels, and the same is true for happiness,” said economist George Loewenstein at Carnegie Mellon University, who was not involved in the study. “This ensures that however successful we are, we are always going to be driving for more.”

But this doesn’t mean that having low expectations is the path to happiness, because the model also shows that such pessimism leads to discontentment while you wait for an outcome. So if you make plans with a flaky friend and assume he’ll cancel, you’ll take a hit on your happiness in the meantime, even if you experience a boost when he shows up on time.

On the other hand, imagine bubbling with anticipation about finally securing concert tickets to go see your favorite musician.

“The whole day, you might be a little bit happier as a result,” Rutledge said, even if the performance eventually disappoints and causes unhappiness later on. “Before you find out the outcome, you’ll be happier if your expectation is higher.”

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SOURCE: The Washington Post
Meeri Kim