The Pursuit of Happiness

Local researchers are on the hunt for the scientific underpinnings of human joy. Our writer enters a world where the formula for unending bliss may be just a click away.

HIGH UP IN THE PSYCHOLOGY building at Harvard, Matt Killingsworth approaches with an outstretched hand. I have come to his office today because I want  the secret to happiness, and he has promised to reveal it.

Killingsworth is pioneering a geeky, Internet-based study of human emotion that involves following more than 5,000 people and collecting moment-by-moment readings of their moods. Wall Street has long had its quants — the data jockeys who try to predict the zigzags of the stock market by analyzing a blizzard of numbers. Now Killingsworth and a handful of other Boston researchers are hoping to apply these same principles to the vagaries of the heart. What causes our sudden upticks in joy? How can we rejigger our lives and ourselves to experience greater happiness?

Killingsworth’s 14th-floor office is dominated by a plate-glass window with a million-dollar view of Cambridge. From up here, the streets are a maze of roofs and treetops, with ant-size students scurrying about. This is the town that gave birth to American psychology in the late 19th century, when William James asked, “What is an emotion?” Now, a coterie of Boston-area scholars are exploring the same mystery — but they’re using 21st-century tools.

I shake off the amazing view and return my attention to Killingsworth. You might expect a “happiness researcher” to look like a libertine — perhaps sporting a Hef-style smoking jacket and some man jewelry. But this 32-year-old grad student is clean-shaven and buttoned-up in a white shirt creased with sharp, origamilike folds. Trained as an engineer, he moved to Cambridge in 2000 to work at a software company. After a few years, though, he was lured away by the conundrums of happiness, and in 2006 he joined the Harvard psychology lab. Killingsworth is glancing back and forth from his iPhone to his computer monitor. The room is oddly bare, as if he has not been able to tear himself away from his gadgets long enough to decorate. He’s showing me what the emotions of his thousands of subjects look like when they’re converted to numbers and graphs.

Volunteers in Killingsworth’s “Track Your Happiness” study receive messages on their smartphones or computers several times a day. Whenever a message arrives, they’re supposed to describe what they’re doing at that moment and rate how happy they are. Killingsworth has come up with the technology to keep track of all the answers, and, he hopes, to divine meaning from them. Happiness, it seems, has become an engineering problem. And now I’ve signed up for the study, too.

  • Sean

    I really liked how you talked a lot about yourself as a person, I think it made the article sound more “real” when you put in facts about your life and relate them to how this study relates to it. I