Financial inequality, envy and guilt can affect happiness.   ©

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In a follow-up to an experiment which developed a ‘happiness equation’, new research suggests that our sense of inequality, through guilt and envy, impacts our own happiness. 

Happiness has long been a question addressed by philosophers, Aristotle’s (384-322 BC) ethics explored the notion of eudaimonia (happiness) as a practice of living well, bound up with being virtuous. While British social reformer and utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) proposed the ‘greatest happiness principle’, happiness understood as a higher proportion of pleasure over pain, and this factor he argued should guide us in the calculus of decision-making about right and wrong – we should aim to bring about the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. 

A new research paper by a team at University College London, co-lead by Dr Robb Rutledge of the Max Planck Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research, and Archy de Berker, a PhD student in Neuroscience at UCL, has shed some light on how inequality can affect happiness. 

Over the last few years Dr Ruttledge’s quantitative, neuro-scientific approach to understanding our emotional experiences has attracted media attention and chimed with the interests and research of behavioural economists. Archy de Berker’s background is a mixture of neuroscience, physiology and psychology. “We would describe ourselves as cognitive neuroscientists,” he says. ‘But we are also computational neuroscientists because we are interested in trying to write down equations for how things are working in the brain.’


As de Berker explains, the current paper is an extension of Dr Ruttledge’s widely publicised happiness model published in 2014, which developed an equation for happiness based upon an individual’s expectations, decisions and past outcomes. Using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), the previous research was able to track activity in two parts of the brain that highlighted changes in happiness (the ventral striatum) and in levels of happiness (the insula). 

A lot of work has been done at a macro-level around happiness – how it fluctuates between people or how someone feels over weeks and months – reflects de Berker. Indeed it was over 40 years ago, in the 1970s that Bhutan put the measurement of happiness on the agenda at a national level, suggesting that the idea of Gross National Happiness was more valuable than the traditional economic measure of Gross Domestic Product. In 2012 the UK published its ‘Happiness Index’ for the Office of National Statistics as a response to the then Prime Minister David Cameron’s initiative to develop data on happiness to complement measures of GDP. The United Nations also published its first World Happiness Report in 2012. 


The current study is looking at a much smaller timescale than these longer term surveys, but it is also extending Dr Ruttledge’s original study of how happiness is affected by social interactions. ‘Things that happen within half an hour or an hour can have quite dramatic consequences to your happiness,’ says de Berker. ‘We are interested in studying those kinds of fluctuations in particular because they are amenable to more neuroscientific interrogation because you can actually play with them in the lab and look at what is happening in the brain when those things are changing.’ 

They set up different experiments with 47 people (broken down into groups of four) none of whom know each other. They are told they are going to play three different games with each other – but initially they are unaware they are just playing with a computer. The first game is a non-social task with an option to gamble, it is about tracking the role of reward and expectation. So for example says de Berker, one option is that the payer can take, ‘take 55 pence for sure, knowing it will be added to their bank account, or they could choose to gamble between  £1.28 and zero pounds. And that’s like coin flip, if you choose that one it’s a 50/50 chance you might get £1.28 or you might get nothing.’ 

The other two tasks are central, explains de Berker with the second game from the field of experimental economics called the ‘dictator game’, a popular approach to studying altruism. ‘If you and I are playing it,’ says de Berker, ‘and I am the person who is in charge, I’m the player. I’m given a sum of money, say £2.50, and told that I can keep all of it or I can choose to give some of it to you. What you see generally in that task is that a lot of people give nothing. They just keep all the money. But there is also a big chunk of people who give precisely half, split it right down the middle. ‘ Economists haven’t been able to predict how much people might give. The study looks deeper into what motivates some people to give a lot of money and others to give little or none.


We thought we might get a handle on it by looking at how happiness fluctuated in a social context. How people respond to seeing other people winning more or less than them. Every four or five trials they asked the participants how they felt. ‘The central finding is that we can isolate two sorts of unhappiness,’ says de Berker, ‘and both relate to inequality. The first kind of unhappiness related to inequality is guilt.  That’s when I get a good outcome and you get a bad outcome and that makes me feel a bit bad. The second kind of inequality related to unhappiness is envy.  That’s when you get a good outcome and I get a bad outcome and that also makes me feel bad.’  In general people’s whose happiness was effected by getting more than others gave away on average 30 percent of their money.  People who saw others getting more money and were affected by it gave only 10 percent. 

The insight is that inequality makes people less happy and depending on whether people’s emotional dynamics are dominated by guilt or envy they will either give away more or less money.  The research also noted the extent to which the socio-economic system has an influence on how much inequality is experienced people.  The paper notes the phenomenon of ‘janteloven’ in Scandinavian countries which broadly means not putting yourself ahead of others, or being boastful. Janteloven emerges form the work of Danish/Norwegian novelist Aksel Sandemose whose 1933 novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, featured the fictional Danish town of Jante and its ten principles all stressing social well-being. 

‘What janteloven emphasises is that you shouldn’t try to put yourself above other people,’ says de Berker. ‘It suppresses the right of the individual to distinguish themselves. You might think that might make people unhappy, it’s almost quite severe, but amazingly the Danish have a high life satisfaction rate. Broadly speaking there seems to be a correlation between low inequality/high equality and high life satisfaction.’

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