The countdown is on for one of the year’s most hated holidays: New Year’s Eve.
For a celebration that mostly involves drinking champagne and wearing sequins, lots of people have some really strong opinions about New Year’s Eve. Comedian John Oliver once compared the evening to the death of a pet: “You know it’s going to happen but somehow you’re never really prepared for how truly awful it is.”
It turns out there’s actually a scientific explanation for why so many people aren’t fans of the holiday, and understanding it can help us have a better time ringing in the new year. And a lot of it has to do with managing expectations.
“Expectations are just as important as what actually happens to us,” said Robb Rutledge, a senior research associate at University College London who studies decision making and happiness. “In general, our happiness doesn’t increase unless something exceeds our expectations.”
This is a well-worn adage—happiness is reality minus expectations—but it’s bolstered by research, including a study Rutledge led published in 2014. Rutledge and his team had a small group of people play a decision making game where they’d win points or money, and measured their happiness moment-to-moment through survey questions and MRI brain scans.
They found that a person’s expectation of the results of their decision—like, “if I choose this option, I’ll win more money”—had a greater impact on their happiness than what actually happened to them (winning money or not). They were able to accurately predict people’s happiness by making a mathematical equation that matched this expectation-reality exchange.
Basically, when reality meets our expectations, our happiness doesn’t increase. If it surpasses our expectations, our happiness grows, and if it’s below our expectations? That’s when we find disappointment.
“Our brains aren’t really there to make us happy or feel good,” Rutledge explained. “What’s useful for you for survival is making good decisions and learning about your environment. Those are the things human brains have been trying to do for hundreds of thousands of years, and happiness can be useful in that but it’s not the goal.”
This is true of all kinds of situations in modern life, but New Year’s Eve seems to be an especially common date when one’s reality doesn’t meet one’s expectations. A 1999 study demonstrated that the higher someone’s expectations were for their New Year’s Eve plans, the more likely they were to be disappointed after the fact.
Rutledge told me there are a few reasons why New Year’s so often ends up disappointing. For one, it’s the kind of holiday that everyone is celebrating, which means if you do want to go out, you probably have to make plans of some kind. This might mean choosing which party to go to, or buying tickets to an event, or booking a hotel room. All of this planning makes us, naturally, start to set up some expectations.
Rutledge has also found evidence that other people’s experiences can impact our moment-to-moment happiness and on New Year’s, everyone is celebrating at the same time. These days, they’re probably also posting on social media—the constant comparison to other people’s seemingly-magical evenings could impact how happy we are with our own.
So what’s the solution? Should you just tell yourself New Year’s Eve is going to be a dumpster fire, and then anything above that will seem like a win?
“No, no, no, that is a common response to this slightly depressing news, but it’s more that people should have realistic expectations,” Rutledge said. “Make plans but realize that not everything goes perfectly, and then just see what happens.”
It can be hard to fight against our natural instincts to plan and predict, but if you tend to be less than thrilled with your New Year’s Eve celebrations, try keeping this in mind this year as you make plans. Considering we’re bidding adieu to what is arguable one of the worst years ever, whatever you end up doing, it should be a Happy New Year.
from A Scientific Explanation for Why Everyone Hates New Year’s Eve