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.

PHOTO BY ADAM DETOUR

PHOTO BY ADAM DETOUR

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.

I’VE JUST SQUEEZED my way into a pair of black jeans. They’re a relic from a million years ago, when I shared an apartment in Allston with an indie guitarist and couch-surfing would-be rock stars. Now the jeans are so tight I can breathe only in little gasps, as if continually surprised.

While sausaged in the pants, I get an e-mail notification from Killingsworth’s survey. I know the drill: I’m supposed to act immediately in order to record my precise mood before it vanishes. I realize that I’m sad right now, but in a deliciously self-indulgent way — wallowing in a grainy-art-film, Jean-Paul Belmondo tristesse. The fact is, I’ve dressed myself up for a night at the Rat in 1995, as if the jeans will let me fly back into my lost youth. They won’t, and so I have to give myself a rather low happiness score, using my mouse to move the slider to the sad end of the scale. As I do, I experience a prickle of shame. Actually, every time I make a negative report on my mood, I feel that I’ve failed somehow.

Perhaps I’m merely picking up the spirit of the age. In the past decade, corporations have begun hiring “happiness consultants” to fly in for weekend boot camps — on the theory that if employees’ moods can be jolted, productivity will skyrocket. And who’d ever heard of a “life coach” 10 years ago? Now thousands of them practice in America, promising to help us sparkle, triumph, excel, and perform. Happiness has become a competitive sport, with goals and huddles and strategies. We’re sure the Joneses are more vivacious than we are, and we’re desperate for some kind of an emotional edge on them.

In this fraught atmosphere, the discussion of happiness is dumbed down and turned into pap. Oftentimes, the gurus decant advice that is based on bad science — they grab at studies to “prove” a one-size-fits-all solution. Their “tips” come in crazy-making lists: Attend regular religious services! Get married! Sleep for eight hours! No, sleep for seven hours! Make a list of your blessings! Forgive!

If there’s any real wisdom in those tips, I’m screwed — destined for a life of misery. I simply don’t do spirituality: I’ve avoided churches ever since I was 13, when my best friend started speaking in tongues and ended up in the madhouse. Because of a cursed streak of independence, I have no desire to marry my longtime boyfriend. And the worst of my failings isn’t even under my control: I can’t sleep. I wish desperately I could transform into a champion slumberer, sawing logs for eight hours. But, alas, it’s never going to happen.

As an insomniac from a family of insomniacs, I have come to think of shut-eye as something other people do, like going to church. In fact, entire sections of this article have been composed in my head while I was staring at the ceiling at 3 a.m. In these moments, when the dark room blisters in the red glow of the alarm clock and I’m positively itchy with my need for REM, I find myself thinking of that commercial for a popular sleeping pill: A luminous moth flutters through a window and settles on the shoulder of a dewy woman — she’s not just sleeping, she’s luxuriating in a creamy bath of slumber. And then she wakes up and stretches in a state of relaxed ecstasy. It’s an image that haunts my sleepless nights, when it seems like everyone else is gliding on white-chocolate rivers in the land of dreamy-dreams while my brain sizzles and decays.

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.

“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.

The study of happiness certainly seems to be a contagion of its own, infecting scholars all around town. “Boston seems to be ground zero for most of this,” Pentland says. But what’s so special about our city? Why is the revolution happening here? There are the engineering centers, of course, and also the medical and public health institutions, the social scientists, the Kennedy School, the business schools. “All these organizations look like they’re separate,” Pentland says, “but really what they’re [concerned with] is maintaining and fixing the human machine. There’s no place else on Earth that has the combination of those resources in one spot.” Talking at his double-espresso clip, he waves his hands in the air as if tracing the outlines of a new empire built on numbers. I leave with a contact high, and as I ride the elevator to the ground floor, I’m convinced that these guys are going to unlock the mysteries of human emotion.

Then Sissela Bok’s book arrives in the mail like a cold splash of water. Bok is a philosopher (and the wife of former Harvard president Derek Bok, who has also published a book on happiness this year). Her new book offers a Western Civ 101 tour of the “good life,” from the ancient Greeks to modern-day geeks. And without ever going on the attack, she slaps down the quants by pointing out that we have been here before. In Exploring Happiness, she writes about the feverish numbering urge of the 18th century, when scholars were after ways for society to measure and then deliver the most happiness to the greatest number of people.

Viewed through the backward binoculars of history, this lust for the quantification of happiness appears to be, well, a tad silly. Consider Jeremy Bentham. The English reformer labored for years to devise a “felicific calculus” that wound up laden with variables, exceptions, and footnotes. His equation eventually became so complicated that he had to write a poem to help his readers remember it. Bentham, who must have felt he was so close he could touch it, died without ever nailing down an exact accounting method for happiness.

So are we, too, simply in the grip of numbering fever? Is all of our quant-ing just more Benthamian bumbling?

Maybe so. But I still can’t wait to see the results of my own happiness report.

ONE SWELTERING JULY DAY, my brain feels sweaty and I’m desperate to cinch my hair up into a bun. While I’m rifling through my desk for a rubber band, a message from Track Your Happiness pops up on my laptop: It’s time, once again, to rate my mood. I close my eyes for a few seconds, taking stock. Am I miserable? Ecstatic? The fact is, I’m experiencing a marble cake of feelings all at once — irritation, bemusement, drowsiness.

So I click on over to the feedback section of Killingsworth’s website, curious whether anyone else has had the same problem. They have. Someone has suggested an “I don’t know” option for those moments when it’s impossible to rate your happiness.

In fact, the feedback section turns out to be the most fascinating part of Killingsworth’s endeavor. It’s the place where the human guinea pigs discuss how human emotions might be transformed into numbers. One participant notes that the questions should tease apart physical pain from mental pain. “Agreed,” writes another volunteer. “I’ve been sick all week and feel like crap, and rating myself ‘feeling bad’ is seriously skewing my happiness rating.” This suggests the possibility of an entirely new kind of “open source” science, in which the subjects themselves take over and begin designing the research, Wikipedia-style.

Killingsworth’s investigation, meanwhile, could benefit from a few tweaks. After weeks of dutifully tracking my happiness, I’ve become aware of the limitations of this software. As the graphs in my happiness report have filled in and become mottled with dots of data, they defy interpretation. The “activities” graph shows that I was happiest when engaged in “nothing special” — but what does that mean exactly? Another graph indicates that I tended to be happiest when focused on a task. So my favorite pastime is, er, nothing, but I also enjoy intense concentration? Huh?

But two of the graphs did offer stunning results — and as it happens, they’re both related to my greatest concern: sleep. One graph showed that, amazingly, even after my worst nights of insomnia, I reported being happy the next day. “Sleep quality” actually appeared to have no effect — zero, zilch, nil — on my mood. What did matter, according to another graph, was the sheer number of hours I lay in bed trying to sleep. I tended to be happiest on the days after I’d glued myself to the mattress for as long as possible. Could it be that nine hours of tussling with the sheets makes me feel better than six hours of perfect slumber?

These results were profoundly comforting. For years I’d been filled with angst over insomnia — and it turned out that the solution had been right in front of me all along. As long as I logged eight hours in bed, I’d feel okay the next morning. I suddenly had a new lever on my own emotions — and now I wanted to go deeper still. I wanted to know what happened when I was sleeping. Did I get the recommended amount of REM? Or was there something seriously wrong with me? Killingsworth’s study couldn’t answer this. But in this wired age there’s no end to what you can find out about yourself. And that’s how the Zeo Personal Sleep Coach came into my life.

Zeo Inc., which is based in Newton, recently introduced a home sleep lab. The Zeo records your brain waves and transforms them into a detailed record of your trip through the Land of Nod — from the dips of deep sleep to the blasts of REM. So I had the company send me one for this story and soon was ripping open the box. Inside was a fancy alarm clock and a headband outfitted with what looked like a tiny miner’s lamp.

One night, I donned the gear, plugged in the Zeo mothership near my bed, clicked off the light, adjusted my pillow, and launched into the experiment…and lay awake. I couldn’t stop obsessing about the monitor cupped to my forehead, sucking up my brain waves, recording my every jitter. Each minute that I failed to fall asleep, the monitor was recording. It was a cruel, unblinking eye, observing the entire fiasco. By 6 a.m., I was near tears. I sat up in bed and kicked my boyfriend in the leg.

“What?” he said, looking up at me blearily. “Why are you wearing a tennis headband?”

I reminded him of my experiment and sobbed about what a torment the night had been. The final indignity: I was now awake and naked except for the headband, outfitted like a porn version of Billie Jean King.

Many hours later, when I had calmed down, I examined the data collected by the Zeo. I was gobsmacked to find out that I’d actually slept through much of the night. I’d only been awake for 15 percent of the time in bed. And I’d crammed in a decent amount of REM.

Suddenly my results from Killingsworth’s study made a lot more sense. Those nights I lay in bed for nine hours, not sleeping? I was probably asleep far longer than I knew. I had sleuthed my way to the beginnings of a new understanding of my psyche.
OF COURSE, AS A VOLUNTEER in Killingsworth’s study, I’d only been able to see my own results. The true test of his experiment will be whether he can transform the data from 5,000 people into eurekas. He has yet to publish, and so, for now, the only way to find out what he’s learning is to look over his shoulder.

That’s why I’m in his office now, hovering behind him as he noodles at his computer. Killingsworth emphasizes that his results are preliminary, a first stab. With that, he clicks a button and his screen fills with blue bubbles, each standing for one of the activities that makes up the American day — shopping, commuting, working, cooking, exercising, etc. One dot floats above all others. Hovering at the climax of bliss, it represents the pastime that made the volunteers happiest. I roll my chair closer to the computer screen to examine this dollop of pleasure. It’s sex. (Not surprising, actually, but it is flabbergasting that Killingsworth has found a way to coax so many people into tracking their moods even while they’re in bed with lovers.)

The sex dot is only a pinprick of blue, meaning that people spend very little time getting busy (or reporting on it). In fact, as a general principle, the graph indicates that people devote their lives to stuff they’d rather not do. Killingsworth points to the blue blot at the bottom of the graph — the activity most associated with misery. This enormous tearstain represents all the surveys that have come in from people tangled up in their own negative thoughts — worrying, obsessing, dreading, resenting. “What I find is about half the time, people are thinking about something other than what they’re doing,” he says. “For everything other than sex, the rate of that mind-wandering is above 30 percent.” His research suggests that the worst way to spend your time is in your own head. Even when people drift off into pleasant thoughts — say, a memory of last summer’s beach cottage — they’re not especially happy. “Overall,” he says, “it really does look like a bad bet” to ruminate, fantasize, or daydream. It’s in the here and now that his volunteers found the most reward.

What’s the best bet? Killingsworth points to the “exercise” bubble. It’s the next-happiest activity after sex. And since you’re likely to spend more time sweating in the gym than sweating between the sheets, the StairMaster might be the surest route to bliss. Meanwhile, Killingsworth says he was surprised to find that work brings so little joy — it’s one of the lowest-hanging activities on the graph. In general, he says, “I do see that people are quite a bit happier when they’re interacting,” especially with spouses and friends. (Looking at my own happiness reports, though, I noticed that I was inclined to feel as content by myself as with others, so go figure.) Kids don’t bring as big a happiness boost as you might expect. And coworkers give no joy at all, according to his data.

The most startling revelation? For decades, researchers have tended to look at positive emotions from factors that play out over months or years — your income level, your marriage, and especially your inborn personality. According to the widely held “set-point theory” of mood, each of us is wired to hover at a certain level of happiness or misery. But Killingsworth says his data suggest a far greater effect from “what you’re doing right now — whether you’re interacting with other people, and whether your attention is directed inside your head or out toward the world. People may think that they’d be vastly happier if they just had enough money, the right job, the right body, the perfect spouse” — but the truth is that these long-term factors raise happiness only a smidge. Killingsworth is now gearing up to publish his results in a scientific journal.

As they continue to track the flutter of moods, researchers may open up a new window into our micro-emotions — the swoops of joy and sorrow that rule our days. Seventy years ago, the advent of strobe photography revealed the secret realm of very fast movement. A drop of milk, splashing up into the air, turned out to look like a fairy crown; a tennis racket curled backward as it hit the ball. In the same way, we might soon be able to peer at spikes of emotion that come and go in a blink, and upon this microscopic inspection, they may look very different from what we’d always supposed. Perhaps happiness is hidden in the world of the very fast, too; perhaps it visits us like a hummingbird shivering on invisible wings, and flits away before we even know it’s there.

ONE FINE DAY, WHEN I’M supposed to be writing, I play hooky and head to the Fells with my dog. We wander through scrubby forest, sliding on the pine needles. The reservoir shines through the chinks of the trees, the achingly blue water prickled by the wind. The dog scrambles up a hillside and splatters herself all over through the underbrush. I wade through some mud and emerge speckled, dappled, brindled. I’m just leaning down to examine the dots all over my leg when, out of nowhere, an intense euphoria grips me. I am appallingly free. I’m Huck Finn about to light out for the territories, Woody Guthrie about to hop a train with the hobos. This is pure, uncut, heroin-grade happiness, and I’d forgotten that it can feel so dangerous.

I have no way to record the bliss — no pen, no smartphone. But I do have a stick in my hand, and I throw it. The dog flies up, hanging in the air for a brief moment before snatching the stick from the sky. And already I can feel the moment fading, passing on to something else.

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  • 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