Equation Explains The Link Between Expectations & Happiness

What is the relationship between expectations and happiness? Are high expectations a major source of our unhappiness?

“Life is full of expectations. It is often said that you will be happier if your expectations are lower. We find that there is some truth to this.” — Robb Rutledge

Rutledge seems to suggest that to have high subjective well-being, we should keep low expectations.

Subjective well-being (SWB) is the scientific term for happiness. It is measured by self-reports on how we feel at certain times and in certain situations.

SWB is a crucial indicator of life satisfaction—the belief that things are going rather well in our lives and we are content with our lot.

Relationship Between Expectations And Happiness

According to the happiness equation developed by a research team led by Rob Rutledge, Happiness = Reality – Expectations.

“Low expectations lead to high happiness.”

When we have low expectations from people and situations, we are more likely to be happy. Because whatever the outcome is, we find it to be better than what we had expected.

On the flip side, when we have high expectations, we are less likely to be happy. In fact, high expectations are a major source of our relationship dissatisfaction.

Shawn Achor discusses how our expectations affect our happiness in his international bestseller “The Happiness Advantage.”

Equation Explains The Link Between Expectations And Happiness

He argues that when we set realistic expectations for ourselves, we are more likely to be happy. Just as such, we are less likely to be happy when our expectations are too high.

“As Harvard Business School professor Peter Bregman advises, ‘Don’t write a book, write a page… Don’t expect to be a great manager in your first six months, just try to set expectations well.'”

— Shawn Achor

This means that if you want to improve your happiness and live a happier life, you must have reasonable expectations for yourself and others around you.

In fact, the more realistic our expectations, the better off we are.

We may enjoy ourselves more if we don’t expect everything to go flawlessly.

However, while the key to being happy is lowering our expectations, we should not lower them to the point of being miserable.

This is supported by a mathematical equation that suggests that regulating our expectations to a realistic level, so that they are not too high or too low, increases happiness.

The Happiness Equation: Can A Math Equation Predict Happiness?

The Happiness Equation was published in the journal Nature Communication, in the paper “The social contingency of momentary subjective well-being.”

This mathematical equation for happiness was devised by researchers at the University College of London. They said it can predict our moment-to-moment happiness.

The basis of the idea is that people are rewarded in line with their expectations.

In the study, 26 subjects were asked to complete a decision-making task in which their choices would result in monetary gain or loss.

A continuous fMRI brain scan was used to continually assess their brain activity during the task, while they were frequently asked how happy they were.

The results were used to develop a mathematical equation for happiness that accounts for expectations during decision-making tasks.

Here’s the happiness equation below:

Happiness Equation
The Happiness Equation

Then the research team led by Rutledge used the data from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging to design a game called “What makes me happy?” with the help of the Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing.

They made the game available through an app and proceeded to put their equation to the test.

Although the rewards were only game points and not money, the equation reliably predicted the moment-to-moment happiness of the participants.

The question isn’t so much what makes me happy. Rather, it is am I doing the right things to make myself and those around me happy?

“We expected to see that recent rewards would affect moment-to-moment happiness but were surprised to find just how important expectations are in determining happiness,” says Rutledge.

“In real-world situations, the rewards associated with life decisions such as starting a new job or getting married are often not realized for a long time, and our results suggest expectations related to these decisions, good and bad, have a big effect on happiness.”

“Life is full of expectations,” says Rutledge. “It is often said that you will be happier if your expectations are lower. We find that there is some truth to this.”

“If you have plans to meet a friend at your favorite restaurant, those positive expectations may increase your happiness as soon as you make the plan,” he says.

“The new equation captures these different effects of expectations and allows happiness to be predicted based on the combined effects of many past events.

“On average we are less happy if others get more or less than us, but this varies a lot from person to person.

“Interestingly, the equation allows us to predict how generous an individual will be in a separate scenario when they are asked how they would like to split a small amount of money with another person.

“Based on exactly how inequality affects their happiness, we can predict which individuals will be altruistic,” Rutledge further said.

• Read the update by Max Planck Gesellschaft here: A new equation shows how our happiness depends not only on what happens to us but also on how this compares to other people.

Related Reading:

The book The Happiness Equation by Neil Pasricha.

Being happier is the biggest challenge you face every single day at work. —  Neil Pasricha

Pasricha illustrates how we may “want nothing, do anything, and have everything.” It’s a book that may change how you think about your time, your career, your relationships, your family, and, ultimately, of course, your happiness.

How Does Wealth Affect Happiness?

Over the years, experts have seen that maximizing wealth is not an effective way for maximizing well-being as the link between the two is weak.

Some scientists have proposed social comparison as a key mediator in the relationship between wealth and well-being. They suggest that relative wealth exerts a stronger influence on a person’s well-being than absolute wealth.

Researchers Rutledge and de Berker discovered that when a person’s social comparison was between unequal wealth, their average subjective well-being declined.

That is, people felt worse when they compared their wealth to that of their partner and found that they were better off, as well as when they were worse off.

Final Words

Not surprisingly, philosophy has told us for millennia what this happiness equation discovered:

If we let go of our expectations from others and what they must think of us, we will find peace.

We need tools because we want to do something with them. Tools help us achieve results.

Happiness is a tool, not an end goal. If we use happiness as a tool, we can improve our overall well-being and life satisfaction.

So, using the happiness equation, we may train ourselves to set realistic expectations.

Happiness is not the belief that we don’t need to change; it is the realization that we can.

– Shawn Achor

Researchers hope that a deeper understanding of mood disorders and their better treatments will be guided by this Happiness Equation.

• • •

• • •

Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy — medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental well-being, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).

Our Happiness Story!

If you liked it, please spread the word.


When it comes to mental well-being, you don't have to do it alone. Going to therapy to feel better is a positive choice. Therapists can help you work through your trauma triggers and emotional patterns.