Sure, money can't buy you love, but it's hard to imagine that winning rewards won't make us happy.
It does, researchers say, but only if our immediate expectations aren't bigger than the size of the payoff. Disappointment squelches happiness.
"Your happiness increases only if you do better than you expected," says Robb Rutledge, a neuroscientist and senior research associate at University College London. "Just having a bigger salary isn't enough to make you happy."
Rutledge and his colleagues are trying to figure out how the brain calculates the determinants of happiness, which they think could be useful in diagnosing and treating depression and other mood disorders. To find this out, they first had 26 students play a decision-making game with small financial rewards.
It turned out that the ultimate amount of money they won didn't affect their happiness. Instead, it was much more dependent on expectations and rewards moment to moment as they played the game.
Then the researchers had tens of thousands of people play the game through the online Great Brain Experiment, which they created to see if free smartphone games could be used to crowdsource cognitive science. (They think that the large number of people participating compensates for the lack of controls.) It's one of several efforts to use phone games in neuroscience.
Using all that data, they were able to predict exactly how happy people would be as they played the game, based on the rewards they had just received and their expectations of winning or losing.
In other words, our brains are quickly recalculating our happiness levels as we go through the day.
Medical applications of this are far, far away, but it does raise the question of whether it makes sense to gain the system.
"You can't really make yourself happier by cheating the system," Rutledge told Shots. "The best thing is for your expectations to be accurate."
That's because expectations affect happiness long before the reward. Looking forward to an evening out with friends, a job promotion or the birth of a child can bring great joy.
And though not overhyping may help prevent short-term disappointment, "It's good to give people positive expectations," Rutledge adds. "You don't want your boss to expect nothing from you."
The results were published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.