The Happiness Project at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

I am the scientific director ("scienturg") for an exciting art-science theatre project which has a run Wednesday 26 - Sunday 30 August at Summerhall at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Why are young people in the UK unhappy? This question led to the creation of The Happiness Project, a piece of theatre that explores what happiness is in the hope of understanding ourselves a little bit better.

The company consists of 12 young artists and 6 academics. Directors Emma Higham and Tashi Gore introduced the project in a blog post and I wrote a blog post about the project and the science of happiness.

We will also have a run at the Roundhouse in London from Tuesday 3 – Saturday 14 November. The project is supported by a Small Arts Award from the Wellcome Trust.

Dopaminergic modulation of choice and happiness

Paper out in the Journal of Neuroscience (it's open access - anyone can download the paper) with my UCL colleagues Nikolina Skandali, Peter Dayan, and Ray Dolan.

We report the results of a pharmacology experiment in which subjects made choices between safe and risky options and were repeatedly asked 'how happy are you at this moment?' After boosting dopamine levels with the drug levodopa, a drug commonly used to treat Parkinson's disease, subjects were more likely to take risks to try to get bigger rewards and they also felt happier after they received some of those rewards. These results might help explain why some people receiving dopaminergic treatment can develop gambling problems. Boosting dopamine levels may make people think that some rewards are better than they actually are, helping to clarify the role of dopamine in happiness.

You can read more about the study in the Journal of Neuroscience Press Release and the UCL Press Release and here: The Independent, Medical Daily.

The paper can also be downloaded here. My research is supported by the Max Planck Society and the Wellcome Trust.

A computational and neural model of happiness

Paper out in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (it's open access - anyone can download the paper by clicking on the PDF symbol) with my UCL colleagues Nikolina Skandali, Peter Dayan, and Ray Dolan.

We report the results of an fMRI experiment, two behavioral studies, and a large-scale smartphone-based replication study. We used computational modeling to show that happiness in our experiments is explained not by earnings, but by the combined influence of recent reward expectations and prediction errors resulting from those expectations. That means happiness depends not on how well things are going, but whether things are going better than expected. Here is our happiness equation:

In the fMRI study, we found that measurements of neural activity in a brain area called the striatum could be used to predict how much happiness would change as the result of the decisions that subjects made and the outcomes they received. In the smartphone experiment we showed that we could also predict happiness outside of the lab in 18,420 participants around the world. Thanks to everyone who played 'What makes me happy?' in The Great Brain Experiment on their phones (download the app if you would like to contribute to our ongoing research). Your data (221,040 happiness ratings) are in the paper!

You can read more about the study in the UCL Press Release and here: BBC News, Forbes, The Atlantic, Time, Washington PostTelegraph.

The paper can also be downloaded here. My research is supported by the Max Planck Society and the Wellcome Trust.