Get this: Low expectations are the key to happiness.
That was one of the findings of a happiness study recently conducted by researchers at University College London.
Researchers used a magnetic resonance imaging machine to monitor brain activity as they guided subjects through a series of activities, such as gambling, and asked them how happy they were as their fortunes rose and fell.
The researchers then used the data to establish a formula that can gauge how moods fluctuate with short-term events. The formula is able to predict what will or will not create happiness.
"The researchers were not surprised by how much rewards influenced happiness, but they were surprised by how much expectations could," reports Time.
As it goes, positive expectations, such as going to your favorite restaurant with a friend, will positively affect one's happiness. But researchers also concluded that if one has low expectations in life, one can never be disappointed.
In other words, when your expectations are low, you are much more likely to exceed them, which will make you happy. Likewise, when your expectations are too high, they are less likely to be met, which will make you unhappy.
Which is probably why so many people are dissatisfied with our political leaders right now. Like or dislike President Obama, he created expectations so high — hope and change and reaching across the political aisle, anyone? — that there was no way he or any human could meet them.
There have been other studies that have discovered fascinating tidbits about what makes us happy. One, conducted by a University of Southern California researcher, found that money doesn't make us happy.
Though it's true that a lack of money will cause stress and unhappiness, it is also true that once people reach an income where they are able to meet their basic needs, with a little left over to go on a vacation and do a few other nice things, their happiness level does not increase as their income soars. More stuff does not equal more happiness.
The USC researcher concluded that the more we have, the more we want, and so we end up working harder to get more — and have less time to pursue the things that truly do make us happy: spending quality time with loved ones and enjoying good health.
Where happiness is concerned, I defer to the great singer-philosopher Kenny Rogers. In an A&E "Biography" piece, he said three things are all that anyone needs to be happy: someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to.
But don't we all know this — and keep forgetting it?
We know that the happiest moments in our own lives involve friends and family. These are the people who affect the deeper part of our nature, our spirits and souls, where true happiness resides. These are the people who can make us laugh so hard our guts hurt or help us when we're down or engage us in deeply satisfying conversations.
The good news is that we can choose happiness, says the Mayo Clinic.
"People who are happy seem to intuitively know that their happiness is the sum of their life choices," the clinic reports. It says happy people choose to build their lives on five pillars:
• devoting time to family and friends
• appreciating what they have
• maintaining an optimistic outlook
• feeling a sense of purpose
• living in the moment
And, of course, let's remember to set lower, more realistic goals and expectations in our personal and public lives. Expecting less and receiving more makes us happy, whereas expecting more and receiving less makes us disappointed and cranky.
But don't ask me, ask President Obama.
©2014 Tom Purcell. Tom Purcell, author of "Misadventures of a 1970's Childhood" and "Comical Sense: A Lone Humorist Takes on a World Gone Nutty!" is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist and is nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc. For info on using this column in your publication or website, contact [email protected] or call (805) 969-2829. Send comments to Tom at [email protected]