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.

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.

  • 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