Is There an Equation for Happiness?

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a mathematical equation that could predict and explain happiness? We could tweak the numbers and get happy! Sounds pretty far-fetched, right?

Actually this equation exists. It looks like this:

Happiness-equation

 

 

A researcher named Robb Rutledge, at the Max Planck University College London Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Aging Research, developed this equation. It figures that such an equation would be developed at an institution whose name is 12 words long! Rutledge developed this equation based on outcomes from a smart phone app called The Great Brain Experiment. The data was derived from 25,189 players of the app, a pretty good sample size!

Let me explain this equation to you. I will leave out the weird Sigma symbols and the small w constants and just explain the letters.

Basically, happiness depends on CR which stands for Certain Rewards or safe choices plus expectations associated with risky choices (EV, expected value), and the difference between the experienced outcome and the expectation which is called a reward prediction error (RPE).

So the key idea is that happiness doesn’t so much depend on how things are going, but how they are going compared to your expectations. Let’s use an example. You make plans to go to a new restaurant with your sweetie. You looked up the restaurant on various restaurant review sites, and it gets very positive reviews. You go to the restaurant and the meal is very good, but not quite as good as the reviews suggest. Your happiness decreases. Or you go to a restaurant that has mediocre reviews, and it’s actually pretty good. Your happiness goes up.

This may be why online dating is so difficult. People build up very high expectations of their potential date, based on photoshopped or out-of-date photographs, as well as email or chat communications that may represent an unrealistically positive view of the other person. When they meet the person their expectations are higher than reality, and they experience disappointment and unhappiness.

So the way to be happier is to have low expectations? Some researchers have suggested this is why Danish people are so happy. The Danes have a pretty good life, but they have lower expectations than people in many other countries, thus a higher level of happiness.

The only problem with this idea is that many choices in our life take a long time to reveal how they will work out, such as marriage and taking a new job or moving to a new city. Having higher expectations for these slow-to-reveal choices probably increases happiness, at least allows the person to hang in with the decision long enough to find out how it will work out.

In general, accurate expectations may be best. Of course, the challenge is how to have accurate expectations.  Reading both negative and positive reviews of a restaurant or a product may help with this. But there’s no site that reviews your marriage or your current job so those kinds of choices may be more of a challenge.

The same researchers also looked at brain scans and figured out that it appeared that dopamine levels reflect happiness changes, higher dopamine comes from increased happiness and lower dopamine comes from disappointment.

There are some practical implications of this research.

  1. For choices that have immediate feedback such as a restaurant or a movie, temper your expectations. Maybe read more negative reviews so that your expectations are lower for the event. Then you can be pleasantly surprised when the restaurant or the movie is better than expected. This also applies to online dating.
  1. For choices that you don’t get quick feedback about such as long-term decisions like marriage or a job, have reasonably high expectations., Or at least try to have realistic expectations.
  1. Lower other people’s expectations of shared choices rather than hyping the choices. For example, let’s imagine you have recently seen a movie that you loved. Don’t tell your friends it was the best movie you’ve ever seen and that it will change their lives, instead tell them it was a pretty good movie and leave out all details. Same with restaurants, cars, and other choices that we make. Downplay rather than overhype.

Now I have to go because I have reservations at that new five-star restaurant after which I’m going to that wonderful new film, and then I’m moving to Denmark! Wish me luck.

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

How to Read Media Coverage of Scientific Research: Sorting Out the Stupid Science from Smart Science

Reading today’s headlines I saw an interesting title, “New Alzheimer’s Gene Identified.”

I was intrigued. Discovering a gene that caused late onset Alzheimer’s would be a major scientific breakthrough, perhaps leading to effective new treatments. So I read the article carefully.

To summarize the findings, a United States research team looked at the entire genome of 2269 people who had late onset Alzheimer’s and 3107 people who did not. They were looking for differences in the genome.

In the people who had late onset Alzheimer’s, 9% had a variation in the gene MTHFD1L, which lives on chromosome 6. Of those who did not have late-onset Alzheimer’s 5% had this variant.

So is this an important finding? The article suggested it was. But I think this is a prime example of bad science reporting. For instance, they went on to say that this particular gene is involved with the metabolism of folate, which influences levels of homocysteine. It’s a known fact that levels of homocysteine can affect heart disease and Alzheimer’s. So is it the gene, or is it the level of homocysteine?

The main reason why I consider this an example of stupid science reporting is that the difference is trivial. Let me give you an example of a better way to report this. The researchers could have instead reported that among people with late-onset Alzheimer’s, 91% of them had no gene changes, and then among people without late onset Alzheimer’s 95% of them had normal genes. But this doesn’t sound very impressive and calls into question whether measurement errors would account for the differences.

So this very expensive genome test yields absolutely no predictive value in terms of who will develop Alzheimer’s and who will not. There is a known genetic variant, called APOE, which lives on chromosome 19. Forty percent of those who develop late-onset Alzheimer’s have this gene, while only 25 to 30% of the general population has it. So even this gene, which has a much stronger association with Alzheimer’s, isn’t a particularly useful clinical test.

The other reason this is an example of stupid science is that basically, this is a negative finding. To scan the entire human genome looking for differences between normal elderly people and elderly people with Alzheimer’s, and discover only a subtle and tiny difference, must’ve been a huge disappointment for the researchers. If I had been the journal editor reviewing this study, I doubt I would’ve published it. Imagine a similar study of an antidepressant, which found that in the antidepressant group, 9% of people got better, and in the placebo group 5% got better. I doubt this would get published.

Interestingly enough, the study hasn’t been published yet, but is being presented as a paper at the April 14 session of the American Academy of Neurology conference in Toronto. This is another clue to reading scientific research. If it hasn’t been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, be very skeptical of the research. Good research usually gets published in top journals, and research that is more dubious often is presented at conferences but never published. It’s much easier to get a paper accepted for a conference than in a science journal.

It’s also important when reading media coverage of scientific research to read beyond the headlines, and to look at the actual numbers that are being reported. If they are very small numbers, or very small differences, be very skeptical of whether they mean anything at all.

As quoted in the article, “While lots of genetic variants have been singled out as possible contributors to Alzheimer’s, the findings often can’t be replicated or repeated, leaving researchers unsure if the results are a coincidence or actually important,” said Dr. Ron Petersen, director of the Mayo Alzheimer’s disease research Center in Rochester, Minnesota.

So to summarize, to be a savvy consumer of media coverage of scientific research:

1. Be skeptical of media reports of scientific research that hasn’t been published in top scientific journals. Good research gets published in peer-reviewed journals, which means that other scientists skeptically read the article before it’s published.

2. Read below the headlines and look for actual numbers that are reported, and apply common sense to these numbers. If the differences are very small in absolute numbers, it often means that the research has very little clinical usefulness. Even if the differences are large in terms of percentages, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are useful findings.

An example would be a finding that drinking a particular type of bourbon increases a very rare type of brain tumor from one in 2,000,00 to three in 2 million. If this was reported in percentage terms the headline would say drinking this bourbon raises the risk of brain tumor by 300%, which would definitely put me and many other people off from drinking bourbon. (By the way, this is a completely fictitious example.) But if you compare the risk to something that people do every day such as driving, and revealed the driving is 1000 times more risky than drinking this type of bourbon, it paints the research in a very different light.

3. Be very skeptical of research that has not been reproduced or replicated by other scientists. There’s a long history in science of findings that cannot be reproduced or replicated by other scientists, and therefore don’t hold up as valid research findings.

4. On the web, be very skeptical of research that’s presented on sites that sell products. Unfortunately a common strategy for selling products, particularly vitamin supplements, is to present pseudoscientific research that supports the use of the supplement. In general, any site that sells a product cannot be relied on for objective information about that product. It’s much better to go to primarily information sites like Web M.D., or the Mayo Clinic site, or one can go directly to the original scientific articles (in some cases), by using PubMed.

So be a smart consumer of science, so that you can tell the difference between smart science and stupid science.

Copyright © 2010 Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D. /The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Of Mellowness and Mice: The Effects of “Meditation” Training on the Mouse Brain

Meditation word cloud

Meditation

Clients often ask me, “What is the effect of meditation practice?” I’ve written about effects of meditation here and here.

Today the New York Times had an interesting article called Of Mice and Mindfulness, which answers that question a little bit. They report a study conducted at the University of Oregon by Cristopher Niell and others.

They cite past studies that found that people who meditate tended to have more white matter around the anterior cingulate cortex, which is a part of the brain that regulates emotion. Meditation also increases the theta wave activity of the brain. Some researchers have wondered if the increased theta wave activity increased the white matter.

Theta waves run at a frequency of 8 Hz, and researchers at the University of Oregon figured out that they could test the effects of this frequency with a very complicated research design. Previously scientists there had developed a breed of mice that had genes that were responsive to light. By beaming light into the mice brains at the same frequency as human theta waves they found that this turned on the neurons in the anterior cingulate cortexes. The researchers also beamed light at a frequency of 1Hz and 40 Hz as a control.

Each mouse got 30 minutes of light therapy for 20 days, which was an attempt to mimic the intensity of human meditation. After, the mice that were exposed to the 8 Hz theta wave frequencies of light were mellower; they hung out in the lighted area of a special cage, while their non-meditating counterparts hid in the shadows! (The 1Hz group also were mellower, which does call into question the specificity of the theta frequency needed to create mellowness in mice.)

So what can we learn about this study of the murine mind? (Yes, who knew that the word murine refers to mice and other related rodents.) The research suggests that there is something about lower frequency brain stimulation that leads to lowered anxiety and increased bravery. I think it’s probably a stretch to assume that this research directly supports the same concept in humans, since nobody is going to replicate this research with people. Nevertheless, it adds to the idea of the mechanism of meditation, which may actually change your brain when practiced diligently for a month.

Now I’m going to take a writing break and meditate…

P.S.  Please see my article How to Meditate if you want to start meditating. 

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.