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.

By Pagan Kennedy | Boston Magazine |

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.

  • 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