Study Finds that Happiness is Tied to Meeting (or Exceeding) Expectations
There was an interesting study out of University College London that found a mathematical equation for predicting moment-to-moment happiness. Basically, we really ARE Douglas Adam’s human lab mice. By being dropped what we perceive to be tiny rewards for our choices, we feel happiness. We want to feel as if our work has a purpose and is being done well. We want to meet our goals. We want accolades. We want little treats, to get something for nothing, to get as much as we perceive we deserve, and then to go a little beyond that.
In other words, we want to win at mindless games with low consequences. We want a free reward at the end of a ten-punch card.
We also want our IVF cycle to be successful once we’ve built expectations by doing injections. And our happiness is tied to that happening.
The study utilized data being collected from an app. Unfortunately, I played the game that they used to find the equation for happiness after I read this study, so while I did feel slightly proud of myself for getting the coconut off the monkey’s head, it didn’t have the same effect on my overall happiness.
Still, as someone who has a lot of wants as well as a lot of expectations, I was drawn to the idea that just feeling as if things were going my way impacted happiness, even if the life rewards weren’t anything spectacular. It brought back my thoughts on the librarian who wouldn’t give me an extra day with the book. My expectation was that she would give me the extra day with the book because (1) I know she does this regularly, (2) I was playing by the rules and bringing back the book on-time rather than being rude and keeping out the book beyond the expiration date, (3) it cost the library nothing to shift my due date back a day.
And then the expectation wasn’t met.
If you asked me whether I deserved the extra days, I would have laughed and said, “of course not.” No one deserves extra time with a library book. But clearly, my behaviour and reaction show that I did feel as if I deserved it. And it made me sad when I walked out with my expectations thwarted.
[A side note: the book came back in the library this week, and I checked it out again. But my heart totally isn’t into this book anymore. I can’t tell if it’s the writing of the author or if the situation soured the book for me, but I’m not enjoying it anymore. Would I have loved the ending if I had been given the extra day to read it without the three week gap?]
Or, again, an example with a book. I went to the bookstore this week to buy the Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman. It didn’t even occur to me that they wouldn’t have it in stock because the third book is so hot right now. But I drove all the way to the bookstore and didn’t have my expectations met. Josh called ahead to check availability at another store, and I drove an additional half hour to the Devil’s Armpit to pick up the books. But when I got there — ooops! — they only had the first one despite saying they had both. Expectations definitely not met or exceeded; mood definitely not happy.
Fast forward a few days to yet a third bookstore. We walked to browse while on a date night, and I found the book and decided to buy it for $16. Before I could pay, Josh walked past the hardcover version being sold for $6 in the bargain section. And even though I prefer paperbacks to hardback books, I swapped out the $16 copy for the $6 copy, and not only got the book I wanted but saved $10 to boot. You better believe I felt good going over expectations and getting a better deal than I thought possible when I set out to buy the books in the first place.
Anyway, being infertile and part of a niche in the blogosphere that has our overall happiness tied to an expectation (family building), I thought the study was interesting. Especially this quote from the article:
Life is full of expectations — it would be difficult to make good decisions without knowing, for example, which restaurant you like better. It is often said that you will be happier if your expectations are lower. We find that there is some truth to this: lower expectations make it more likely that an outcome will exceed those expectations and have a positive impact on happiness. However, expectations also affect happiness even before we learn the outcome of a decision. If you have plans to meet a friend at your favourite restaurant, those positive expectations may increase your happiness as soon as you make the plan. The new equation captures these different effects of expectations and allows happiness to be predicted based on the combined effects of many past events.
That warm glow of happiness at the start of a cycle thinking, this could be it. The expectations that sparkle in the form of hope.
I’m not sure how you can effectively lower your expectations, but someone could make a mint if they could retrain brains to want less and be equally happy with the status quo, or to be able to keep the happiness you feel before you learn the outcome and have it temper the crushing disappointment when the expected ending doesn’t come.