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.

Like everyone else, I wanted to find my own secret weapon in the happiness game — and rather than pseudoscience, I craved evidence-based insights. That’s what drew me to Matthew Killingsworth’s research. The guy is packing some serious data. The volunteers in his study have already provided him with more than 200,000 on-the-spot reports, which means he is now running one of the largest investigations of moment-to-moment emotion in history. Now I, too, get to examine my emotions while they are still wriggling and alive, like fish just wrenched from the deep.

By having people report immediately on their feelings, Killingsworth’s study attempts to get around one of the biggest challenges in measuring mood — we don’t remember our emotions accurately. In the bestseller Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert, Killingsworth’s mentor at Harvard, explains that memory often tricks people into making the wrong decisions. One day you’re huddled in a soggy sleeping bag, thinking, I’ll never go camping again. A few months later, you’re looking forward to the golden hue of the Coleman lamp, and sign up for a five-day trek. According to Gilbert, the way to get around this problem, from a research perspective, is to examine happiness in situ. He advocates using a method called “experience sampling” to query people in the moment.

In the past, volunteers in these kinds of studies carried around alarm clocks or wore beepers. It was a logistical nightmare. Killingsworth realized there could be an app for that. He designed a project that automated the entire process of experience sampling — from collecting volunteers to tabulating results. In theory, a lone researcher could follow millions of people this way.

Soon after I agree to become a human happiness-o-meter and have filled out a few surveys, I find that I can click on a link to view my “happiness report.” It shows strange, graphical representations of my own moods and behavior, built from my survey answers. In the beginning, there’s too little data to conclude much — just a few dots scattered across some graphs. But it’s clear that if I fill out enough reports, I’ll eventually be able to glimpse myself from an angle that’s never before been possible. Those little specks of my mood, rearranged onto an X-Y axis, promise eerie revelations. It will be like catching sight of myself in a friend’s wedding video, drunkenly staggering on the dance floor. Is that really me? Do I really flap my hands like that? There’s a frisson in witnessing your own data — a sense of spying on yourself.

  • 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