Winning money makes people happier, but the size of the prize makes surprisingly little difference. On the other hand, when the win comes with an opportunity to learn, people's happiness is substantially – if temporarily – boosted. If the result of a narrow trial can be applied to the wider world, we might conclude that people value knowledge over money, even though the world seldom seems built that way.
“The best thing for being sad,” Merlin told Arthur in The Once And Future King, “Is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails.” Psychologists may have finally confirmed T. H. White's wisdom.
Dr Bastien Blain and Dr Robb Rutledge of University College London noted previous studies have found that people report mood improvement when they make successful predictions in return for a reward. The happiness may be temporary, but it's still something to aim for. However, the pair point out in eLife, these studies don't reveal whether the extra well-being comes from the (small) monetary rewards on offer, the satisfaction of being right, or the knowledge gained in spotting a pattern.
To distinguish between these, Blain and Rutledge had 75 volunteers predict which car would win a race. The size of the payment, if they chose correctly, depended on the car chosen, with the numbers varying randomly for each race. One car always had an 80 percent chance of winning, but the participants were not told this. Instead, they could estimate the odds by tracking results over many races.
To complicate things further, for half the participants the advantage flipped to favor the other car after every 20 races.
Through the game, participants were frequently asked how happy they were. Unsurprisingly, happiness increased when they had made successful calls – after all, they'd just won some money, and (first race aside) might even be able to credit their success to their own skill in pattern recognition.
However, the authors reported that the increase in happiness was unrelated to the size of the win, possibly suggesting it wasn't about the money. The authors explored the circumstances which were associated with the largest wins, and found the boosts were predicted by the opportunity to learn. Unexpected wins provided participants with the greatest opportunity to learn more about the game they were playing, and caused the greatest increase in happiness.
Some of the players showed symptoms of depression prior to the game. Blain and Rutledge found the happiness of this subgroup increased much more in the stable game, rather than under conditions of uncertainty created by the bias shifting from one car to another unexpectedly. “Uncertain environments may be especially unpleasant for people with depression,” they write.
As with so many psychological studies based on simplified games, it's hard to know how reliably the results translate to the real world. Alternative explanations might also be offered for why unexpected wins produce a greater happiness boost. Nevertheless, the results at least raise the possibility that we'd all be happier if we sought a combination of small victories and greater learning, rather than chasing the big money.