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’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.

  • 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