Meta-Effects of Happiness Tracking
mood & emotion
Alex Tarling starting using the Mappiness app to track his happiness along with other contextual data. Over time the ritual of having to ask himself, “How happy am I?” three times a day started to get him thinking about how he thought about his own happiness and what that meant to him. In this talk, he shares his experience, some of the data he gathered, and how he learned that a slight change in attitude has increased his self-rating of happiness over time.
Basically, I’m going to talk about my experience of tracking happiness, but I wanted to start off by asking you to rate your own happiness right now in this moment on a scale of 1 to 10. Raise your hands if you come up with a number like seven or six or eight or something in that; quite a lot of people.
Okay, so for me in the absence of any really strong positive or negative emotion, I would always go for a seven because you can always be a bit more happier than you are right now. To go for a 10 that would be maybe I haven’t any ambition or no goals in life, or I don’t care what’s going on in the world.
So there is these aspect in rating happiness, that a little bit of unhappiness is maybe like a sign of someone who is a bit thoughtful or a bit caring. So you can see that you know, for me at least this idea of rating happiness is quite complicated, because it has this kind of social and contextual element to it and not just a trajectory of feeling in the moment.
So, in terms of rating my happiness I chose the Mappiness app, that it has this ability to collect data around lots of other sorts of contextual aspects of what’s going on in your life, and plotted on a map which is kind of something that I have a little bit of a fetish for. So you can actually represent this data and see it in context.
The app is from the London School of Economics, who have their own sort of research agenda for it around happiness and local environment. So they solicit you to kind of provide data for them, but they give you access to all the raw data as well. So they kind of give it back to you and you can analyze it in different ways.
They also will say on the website that they are expecting you to have like a warm glow of helping in using this app, and that’s quite interesting in itself, because warm glow is associated with happiness. So we are already starting to see this idea that rating your happiness can actually affect it. And there is a little bit of an issue with them experimenting bias in terms of myself tracking in that aspect, probably not from their agenda but from my tracking agenda here.
So we know that measuring things changes things, not just for imaginary cats but also for real people. Lots of people are on the wrong medications because their blood pressure spikes up every time they haven’t measured in the doctor’s office, and that’s pretty significant and impactful on their lives.
For me, you know kind of measuring stuff can make you happy or unhappy. You know I get on the scales and sometimes I have a good response, and sometimes I get that sinking feeling and obviously in that moment taking that action is affecting my happiness.
But note, that it’s not actually the measurement that’s doing that you know, it’s actually my thoughts and beliefs about that number in what it should be and how it is changing over time.
So the Mappiness app allows me to collect all of this contextual information, so it also allows me to kind of said what sort of activities I’m doing, where I am, who I’m with. I can take a photograph and that’s geo-located. So it generates a nice set of contextual data, and not being a data person myself it kind of represents it and does quite a lot of visualization for me.
The maps in particular are really nice because you can locate those photographs on it and it gives you not just a log of where and when, but also the sense of how you are feeling at the time.
This was really an interesting chart for me, so my level of activity to happiness with which I rated them. It was kind of shocking to see that working was right down at the bottom of my list here, and you will be pleased to know that I did actually changed my job shortly after this.
The other thing that was really shocking was that on one occasion, and you can see, number 12, I actually seemed to have rated my experience of intimacy of making love, and I don’t know what I was thinking of at the time. Also, even more shocking it’s only at number 12; slightly better than shopping, but not quite as good as a cup of tea, which I think can possibly stand testament to the risk of over tracking of what that can actually do to your relationships and the quality of your life. But there we go, maybe that’s just me and in England we do like tea a lot.
So this one is really critical, for me it shows how my happiness changes over the period when I was tracking from July to December, and you can see it’s on this sort of huge upwards trajectory of .64 up to 1 which is kind of extremely happy. And it wasn’t that I just had a kind of magical transformation and was perpetually happy. I actually found it pretty demanding rating my happiness several times a day, because each time it raised these questions for me and I kind of had to explore where I was at in my life, you know, comparing where I was now with my goals and ambitions. So the process just raised these questions for me about so what is happiness that I actually go through these slightly ritualistic processes every time in this quite arduous fashion to come up with a number.
So there was these two-dimensional so basically if there is a strong feeling, positive or negative, then that’s fairly easy to characterize pleasure as happy, and sadness is unhappy. But in the general run of things, it was more an assessment about this tonal quality of my life in general. And for me that was very specific, I would sort of think about you know the quality of my life, my ambitions and goals and how I was meeting my responsibilities. And actually there was a fairly negative undertone in that and I would like to judge myself a little bit and go, you know, could I be doing better, and how will I be a better person.
There is this kind of underlying belief that I discovered in myself that being a little bit unhappy helps motivate me to be better with my sort of working theory on there. So that leads that kind of number seven baseline.
So my experience around happiness is that you know I kind of go through this habitual process, to arrive at this fairly static score you know, it’s kind of a result of a behaviour and I’m making it up as a result of this cognitive activity. So if it is a kind of a habit you know, if I undertook a different sequence and thoughts in those moments would I actually get a different result. It seems sensible that that would be possible.
So this was not an attempt to banish unhappiness forever, or kind of medicate away any experience of sadness or kind of anxiety, or sorrow in my life. But it was just an experiment to go in that moment when I evaluate my happiness, can I adopt a different pattern of behaviour and can I get a different experience out of that.
So whenever I was prompted by the app, I would just kind of relax and be present, and become mindful and find something to be grateful for, and in particular stop beating myself up for a minute and just give myself a chance to breathe here.
When I managed to do that, and I managed to do that fairly successfully over this time period, and I did authentically able to rate my experience with a kind of more comfort and more happiness.
In particular, it’s still tracking relaxation you know pretty much steadily right up until the end in this period of December, when I had a very intense project in my work. But using these sorts of techniques I was able to kind of, even though I wasn’t the least bit sort of relax or particularly alert at that point I was able to still generate these kind of comfortable experiences for myself.
So what I learnt; I can’t in the least measure my own happiness without affecting it. And happiness is the kind of cognitive habitual pattern, and habits are open to change if you put the work in and practice them.
And the outcome is not to banish unhappiness forever, but it was basically the sense of increased resilience and increased you know, being less of a victim circumstances that I’ve found most invigorating.
So, thank you so much that’s all.