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.

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.

  • 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