The Secret of Happiness

According to a new study published in the BMJ, the Danish are happier than people in other developed nations because they have low expectations. That's the dismal secret of happiness: not expecting very much from life in the first place.

"It's a David and Goliath thing," said the lead author, Kaare Christensen, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense. "If you're a big guy, you expect to be on the top all the time and you're disappointed when things don't go well. But when you're down at the bottom like us, you hang on, you don't expect much, and once in a while you win, and it's that much better."

Just look at the Red Sox. Until 2004, they hadn't won a World Series for more than 80 years. Nobody expected them to ever win again. But then a miracle happened - that seven game series against the Yankees was an act of God - and Red Sox fans had a whole new set of expectations. They realized that their team wasn't destined to be losers. Of course, this has made the last two seasons even more disappointing then usual. The high expectations of Red Sox fans have since gone unfulfilled, which makes them sad.*

There's a neural explanation for this phenomenon. As I've mentioned before, the quirky behavior of our dopamine neurons holds the key to explaining many of our moods. Wolfram Schultz, a neuroscientist at Cambridge University has spent the last few decades measuring the firing rates of dopamine neurons in the brains of monkeys as they are receiving rewards of fruit juice. His experiments observe a simple protocol: Schultz sounds a loud tone, waits for a few seconds, and then squirts a few ounces of juice into the monkey's mouth. At first, the dopamine neurons don't fire until the juice is delivered. The monkey doesn't get happy until it gets the actual reward. However, once the animal learns that the tone usually predicts the imminent arrival of juice, the same neurons begin firing at the sound of the tone, instead of the sweet reward. The noise now triggers the same burst of pleasure that was once reserved for the juice; it has become a neural proxy for the expected reward. Finally, when monkeys expect juice but don't get any (the tone wasn't followed by a reward), their dopamine neurons fired at a very low rate, as if expressing disappointment.

Because the Danes never expect very much, their dopamine neurons are rarely disappointed. And when a reward does come their way, it's always surprising, which makes their neurons even more excited. Just look at the Danish victory in the 1992 Euro Cup. According to the researchers, the victory was so unexpected that it created "a state of euphoria [and] the country has not been the same since."

*Although I live in Red Sox Nation, I'm a Dodgers fan, so I've been dealing with the depressing weight of expectations since 1988.


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"The dismal secret of happiness"? Not so dismal. Just not expecting more from life than life can deliver. But life can still deliver wonder, and love, and beauty, and ample mystery. All in time, and none of it exactly what you were expecting. But plenty enough to keep it interesting, and nothing dismal about it.


As a Dane, and someone who works professionally with happiness (albeit at work), I do feel I should point out that the explanation that Danes are generally pessimistic and have low expectations is meant as a joke in the NYTimes article. If anything, Danes, like most westerners, have very high standards and expectations.