Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Measuring of Happiness

I was feeling down the other day. I don't really know why. Maybe it was chemical. I just had trouble smiling. That made me start thinking of the nature of happiness. Of course there have been a lot of studies on happiness as a metric. We've all heard how beyond a bare minimum, wealth doesn't translate into happiness. And there are also studies that say hey, maybe it does a little.

But all these are based on surveys that ask "how happy you are in life?" That's very different than asking "how do you feel right now?" If we can get data on the latter, I think it would bring about some very interesting insights.

I bought a fitbit pedometer the other day. It posts your daily activities on a website so that you can track your daily calorie burn. Even more interesting, it allows you to wear it at night so that you can track how well you sleep at night. I've included a screenshot below. All this data is made possible by a simple accelerometer strapped to my wrist.

Now imagine we had some kind of sensor you could attach to people that would record how happy they are every minute of every day. Instead of surveying 100 people once a week, we could get instantaneous data across a huge sample of people. Let's ignore the privacy issues right now and assume people opted in for this. Of course this would give great feedback to industry (Starbucks makes you happier than Coca Cola), but also imagine what it would do for our understanding of ourselves. Does average current happiness correlate with how happy people say they are with life? How wide is the spread of how happy people are in their day-to-day lives? Is everything really relative? Is there a steady "bucket" of happiness that people have every day or week or month?

Now what if this information WAS made public, so that you could see the "moods" of all your friends all the time. It's a mix between being able to read people's emotions and having constantly updated facebook and twitter statuses available full time. It might be useful to have a big "Do not disturb" sign floating over your head sometimes.

Anyhow, I look forward to reading about this study whenever someone gets around to doing it in the next decade or so. The power of technology WILL make something like this possible, and I eagerly await the results.

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