Gambling on happiness

I was intrigued when Theresa Kishkan posted an equation for happiness on her blog this morning. A mathematical equation:


I couldn’t make sense of the formula, so I went looking for an explanation. I found it here:

Happiness = baseline average mood + what you can settle for (CR) + what you’ll get on average if you gamble (EV) + the difference between that and what you actually get (RPE). The recurring ∑-function weights each factor in turn by its recent history.

The equation is the result of an experiment with gambling and playing cards, but the researcher, Robb Rutledge at University College London, thinks his findings have implications beyond the gaming table. His research looks at the relationship between decision making and emotion. It’s all about dopamine and the expectation of a reward.

According to the article in The Telegraph,

Bad hands with big potential losses made subjects feel lucky just to escape with £0, and they rated their happiness upwards even though they gained nothing. But when that same zero was the worst option in a hand of potential gains, they rated downwards because they felt they had missed an opportunity.


A parallel experiment found that simply making a gamble—that is, creating an expectation of reward—made people happier, even if they were never told its outcome.

My late friend Dora (pictured, above left, with her BFF, my grandmother) lived a hundred years and was one of the most contented people I’ve ever known. She held the opposite theory: Expect nothing—that way you’ll never be disappointed.

By the way, Dora loved cards and any form of gambling. She also routinely cheated at solitaire.

Photo source: morguefile

Photo source: morguefile


3 Responses to “Gambling on happiness”

  1. Diana Z

    Hi, Leslie.

    Is Dora holding a cigarette in her right hand? If she smoked and lived to 100 years old, she is a very lucky gambler indeed. 😉

    • commatologist

      What they say about genetics being the best indicator of longevity holds true in Dora’s case: her father and mother lived to 93 and 97 respectively and her sister Bertha made it to 101. Also, Dora hedged her bets: she quit smoking in her 60s. 🙂


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