A computational neuroscience perspective on subjective wellbeing within the active inference framework

Ryan Smith, Lav R. Varshney, Susumu Nagayama, Masahiro Kazama, Takuya Kitagawa, Shunsuke Managi, Yoshiki Ishikawa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Understanding and promoting subjective wellbeing (SWB) has been the topic of increasing research, due in part to its potential contributions to health and productivity. To date, the conceptualization of SWB has been grounded within social psychology and largely focused on self-report measures. In this paper, we explore the potentially complementary tools and theoretical perspectives offered by computational neuroscience, with a focus on the active inference (AI) framework. This framework is motivated by the fact that the brain does not have direct access to the world; to select actions, it must instead infer the most likely external causes of the sensory input it receives from both the body and the external world. Because sensory input is always consistent with multiple interpretations, the brain’s internal model must use background knowledge, in the form of prior expectations, to make a “best guess” about the situation it is in and how it will change by taking one action or another. This best guess arises by minimizing an error signal representing the deviation between predicted and observed sensations given a chosen action—quantified mathematically by a variable called free energy (FE). Crucially, recent proposals have illustrated how emotional experience may emerge within AI as a natural consequence of the brain keeping track of the success of its model in selecting actions to minimize FE. In this paper, we draw on the concepts and mathematics in AI to highlight how different computational strategies can be used to minimize FE—some more successfully than others. This affords a characterization of how diverse individuals may adopt unique strategies for achieving high SWB. It also highlights novel ways in which SWB could be effectively improved. These considerations lead us to propose a novel computational framework for understanding SWB. We highlight several parameters in these models that could explain individual and cultural differences in SWB, and how they might inspire novel interventions. We conclude by proposing a line of future empirical research based on computational modelling that could complement current approaches to the study of wellbeing and its improvement.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)102-131
Number of pages30
JournalInternational Journal of Wellbeing
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 31 2022


  • active inference
  • computational neuroscience
  • computational psychiatry
  • emotion
  • predictive coding
  • subjective wellbeing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Applied Psychology
  • Economics, Econometrics and Finance (miscellaneous)


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