Is it possible to measure happiness? New Roundhouse show asks the question

The Happiness Project. Picture: Tom Medwell

The Happiness Project. Picture: Tom Medwell - Credit: Archant

A new theatre show at the Roundhouse sees a group of young people, neuroscientists and psychologists examine the nature of happiness, finds Bridget Galton.

Can we scientifically measure happiness? And, if so, how might that help us achieve it? Both these questions are explored in a unique collaboration between young people and academics.

The Happiness Project is a devised theatre show performed at the Roundhouse studio by a dozen young people and six neuroscientists and psychologists.

Featuring moving personal accounts of the pressures facing young people, it’s a truly intergenerational piece, with performers ranging from 12-72 years old exploring where scientific research and real life meet.

The two-year project began in response to a 2007 UNICEF report into young people’s wellbeing and happiness in industrialised countries.

The UK came out bottom and co-director Emma Higham says as someone who creates theatre with young people, she was interested in why.

“With youth unemployment and tuition fees, it’s an interesting time to look at the wellbeing of young people.”

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The play follows the journey of a young woman whose mum tells her, ‘I don’t mind what you do, as long as you are happy.’

As she tries to work out what that means, she draws on scientific research and the life experiences of her fellow young performers.

Higham says: “We started with the idea of measuring something most people think is impossible to measure and asked different academics to talk to us.

“The conversations were so interesting we invited them in for weekend sessions and the relationships between the young people and academics became the show.”

Issues addressed include the stress and anxiety of academic pressure, employment opportunities, the financial cost of university, young people’s power in society, societal ideals, and the way social media makes them feel everyone else is having a better time.

“Even though they know their friends are curating their own images, your own sense of identity at that age is so complex and changing you don’t see the nuance in everything,” says Higham

Ideas of expectations, memory and living in the moment are all explored in the piece.

“One psychologist talks about finding your flow – losing yourself within a book or music so you no longer think about yourself.

“We also looked at the link between happiness and sadness, quite often there’s sadness in a happy memory because it’s past and fleeting.”

The academics involved included neuroscientists researching stress, anxiety, memory, and the unconscious mind.

One such figure is Robb Rutledge, who appears with his neuroscientist wife Dr Stephanie Lazzaro and works at UCL and the Wellcome Trust and lives in Kentish Town. His work has focused on how people make decisions and what happens in their brains when they discover the outcomes of those decisions.

His experiments have included monitoring neuro-images of subjects’ brains to see how they respond when they win or lose different sums of money.

“When they get happy or unhappy about this, it helps us understand what our brains are like and what they care about.

“The neurotransmitter dopamine tends to care how things turn out relative to what we expected – better than expected, you get a release of dopamine; worse, a reduction. People’s emotional states change quite a lot if they get rewards. Rewards have to do with decision making. People want to get more rewards and we know what happens in the brain when they get them. Winning and losing with different expectations can predict how happy you will be the next time we ask you.”

There is a mathematical equation for happiness which Rutledge concedes sounds “a bit weird”, but adds: “It’s a way of mathematically relating events that are happening for someone and how happy they will be from moment to moment.

“Of course life is more complicated than that and also more interesting. But to figure anything out about how people make decisions or how the human brain works, we have to simplify things.”

Ultimately scientists want to see how their research can predict what might happen in real world situations. For example, if someone else is playing Rutledge’s win/lose game at the same time and you win and they lose, how does inequality or comparison impact on happiness?

He adds that while the brain is a piece of machinery thousands of years old, the business of acquiring money is relatively recent in Western society where we are no longer preoccupied with basic food and shelter.

“A lot more people have a level of wealth that means they can afford goods that most of us don’t think are necessary. What it is they value is as much a tool for understanding ourselves. We need to think about how we are living our lives now we have the option to make choices, so we choose things we know we care about and pay attention to emotions because they are important for understanding ourselves and making good decisions for our future.

Working with young people, he says, has been challenging and fun.

“We’ve explored how you can develop a language for talking about happiness and thinking what science can tell us, how the brain works and what the brain has to do with who we are and what it means to be happy.”

Although the creative process is different to the scientific one, he says in some ways art and science aren’t so different.

“Asking a good question is important to a good scientist and an artist. If you don’t ask good questions, you are never going to come up with interesting answers.

“We have learned a lot over the last 50 years but there are many many questions we don’t have the answer to. We will still be studying brains a hundred years from now and over the next decade we will have much better answers about why people value one thing compared to another.”

Studio Theatre, Roundhouse, November 3-14 0300 6789 222 /