The French author, André Maurois, is said to have written, “the first recipe for happiness is: avoid too lengthy meditation on the past”. Regardless of the period of one’s meditation, Maurois is just one of many who have suggested an answer to mankind’s eternal pursuit of . . . if not just the recipe, then the sure bet formula for happiness.
More recently, a group of research mathematicians have gone so far as to publish results from a scientific study, which would suggest that they’ve actually been able to quantify a specific formula for happiness — or more precisely perhaps, what the researchers would characterize as a person’s subjective well-being, as a proxy for happiness.
A Formula For Everything
So, everyone knows there’s no mathematical formula for predicting happiness, right? Well, in the case of this research study, apparently there is.
Briefly, study subjects were asked to respond to various decision-making tasks, and from these choices they experienced monetary gains and losses. Throughout the study, the subjects were regularly asked to report how happy they were at that moment. Combining these responses with neural activity monitored via MRI allowed the researchers to generate a computational model where self-reported happiness was correlated to both rewards received, as well as the study subject’s reward expectations.
And Apparently An App for Everything Too
To test their computational model with a much larger sample, the researchers “crowd-sourced” their theory by developing a smartphone game, which mimicked the conditions of their original experiment, but offered points in lieu of actual monetary rewards. The computational model proved to be remarkably accurate in predicting the happiness levels of the smartphone game participants, when compared to the actual levels of happiness reported.
Not Quite What Was Expected
The researchers anticipated that they would record higher levels of happiness, on a moment-to-moment basis, based on the recency of the rewards received, but another factor proved to be important: The expectations of the subject. Apparently, rewards (or losses) alone were not the primary source of the level of happiness experienced. The level of happiness turned out to be a larger function of the expectations of the individual subject – even to the extent that happiness was achieved in the absence of a reward, but only as long as a neutral or zero outcome was “greater” than the loss that was possibly expected.
The Benefits of Aiming Low
The researchers draw some familiar conclusions from their research, along with some more collateral parallels to the role and importance of life and career expectations. Once again, we see that the motivational – and perhaps happiness “effects” -- of rewards are short-lived. Life and career expectations typically have a much longer lead time before people are able to accurately assess the “goodness” or “badness” of their choices and life decisions – all relative to their personal expectations. It’s even speculated that those with lower expectations will experience greater levels of happiness, since their actual outcomes are more likely to exceed their original expectations.
Applied Neuroscience and Gamification
The research conducted here is interesting and important, given the modern day focus of attempting to quantify as much as possible in order to more accurately predict future outcomes. And it clearly has direct application in business and in the specific design and development of total rewards. The natural predisposition of human beings to create frames, establish expectations, experience loss aversion and make relative comparisons are all in play here – along with a number of other dynamic that I just don’t readily recognize.
A use of a smartphone app to crowd-source and generalize a theory from a small sample, and obtain confirmation from a much larger sample, underscores just one of the future applications of gamification, in learning and human factors research. The total rewards “smart money” is increasingly focusing on neuroscientific research as the next high frontier for human capital professionals, and to moving what has been predominantly theoretical research to regular and practical application in the workplace.
Everyone probably has a different perspective. What's yours?
Chris Dobyns, CCP, CBP, is Manager of the Office of Human Resource Strategies for one of the largest U.S. intelligence agencies. The Office of Human Resource Strategies is responsible for compensation and incentives, occupational structure, recognition and rewards, HR policy, and human capital program evaluation and assessment for his Agency. Chris has worked in the area of compensation for more than 30 years, and has been employed in various compensation-related positions by a number of large, private sector companies including, Sears, Roebuck, Arizona Public Service and Westinghouse Savannah River Company.
Image "Try Win Lose Dice" courtesy of Stuart Miles/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net