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.

“WHAT ARE THE CLOCK SPRINGS of human behavior?” asks Alex “Sandy” Pentland. The organizational engineering professor, his hair an explosion of ginger and gray, is draped across a sofa in the MIT Media Lab, brimming with a kind of subversive glee that he — a techie — should be asking such a squishy question. After all, we’ve gotten used to thinking of the human psyche as something that belongs to the philosophers — the intellectuals who puff clove cigarettes, wear black turtlenecks, and quote Foucault. Well, times have changed.

I’ve come to Pentland’s office because he has a spooky habit of predicting the future. Back in the 1990s, he presided over a clan of students (nicknamed “the cyborgs”) who wore computers on their bodies and surfed the Web while walking down the street. Now, of course, this whacked-out experiment has turned into humdrum reality. So if anyone can point me to the cutting edge of happiness science, it’s Pentland.

Last year, in the venerable Science magazine, he and a gaggle of colleagues announced the birth of a brand-new discipline called “computational social science.” Believing that number-crunching may be the key to cracking the mysteries of human behavior and emotion, Pentland and his fellow researchers proposed that the study of human beings should be informed not by instinct and emotion, but by wizardry that draws on enormous stores of cold, hard data. “We have this ability, starting now, to reinvent the social sciences,” Pentland tells me.

To gather that precious data, Pentland has designed several studies in which volunteers carry souped-up cell phones or wear special badges that record their social interactions during the day. During the 2008 presidential race, for instance, Pentland’s team tracked 81 MIT volunteers who lived in the same dorm. Their cell phone data gave the researchers a snapshot of how the students clustered according to their political affiliations; the data also showed that acquaintances — hallmates and friends of friends — could influence the opinions of the volunteers. It’s these people swarming around us who create our sense of what’s normal. “When you’re in Rome, you start doing what Romans do,” Pentland says. We’re all members of a hive, the quants believe, vibrating with the associated joys and sorrows of everyone around us, buzzing with group think, and absorbing emotion through our antennae. Your mood, in other words, comes in good part from the people around you. In fact, Harvard sociologist Nicholas Christakis and UC–San Diego’s James Fowler published a paper in 2008 proposing that happiness is a contagion — a kind of virus that spreads from person to person. Surprisingly, even neighbors and people who know each other only casually appear to be able to transmit their moods to one another.

It’s a wonderfully communitarian idea: joy as something we pass back and forth with our neighbors, like borrowed cups of sugar. In which case, what’s the point in keeping up with the Joneses? Their happiness is ours.

  • 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