Digital Life

An App On The Search For The Secret To Happiness

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An app that helps researchers measure happiness? It's here! NPR's Guy Raz from the Ted Radio Hour speaks with social scientist Matt Killingsworth, who has developed the Happy App.


Social scientists have a new way of researching happiness. Now, for years you had to ask somebody why they were happy in order study what makes somebody happy, but that's been hard to do every minute of every day until now. Guy Raz of the TED Radio Hour explains.

GUY RAZ, BYLINE: Matt Killingsworth is a scientist who...

MATT KILLINGSWORTH: ...studies the causes and nature of human happiness.

RAZ: Which used to mean bringing people to a lab and interviewing them and trying to figure out...

KILLINGSWORTH: what extent are richer people happier, are people with children happier, are unemployed people less happy, etcetera. But it's hard to know for sure what's causing what and it's ever harder to know what can people actually change and have an impact in their lives.

RAZ: So Matt, he came up with a solution. An app on your smartphone. He calls it track your happiness and you can sign up online and a couple times a day Matt will send you a text with a link to a survey.

KILLINGSWORTH: And the idea is that you want to respond as fast as you can and tell me about your experience at the instant right before you got that text message.

RAZ: Real time social science, and it's like a miniature therapist right in your phone, the therapist with lots of questions.


KILLINGSWORTH: How do you feel right now? Do you have to do what you're doing? Do you want to do what you're doing? Yes or no.

RAZ: Thirty-five thousand people have answered these questions for Matt.


KILLINGSWORTH: To what extent are you being productive? What time did you go to sleep last night? When did you finish eating your most recent meal today?

RAZ: And Matt thinks all of these data points - who we spend our time with, how we think about ourselves and other people, where our attention is focused - might just add up into an equation for happiness. So what is it?


KILLINGSWORTH: So when I look across all the different activities that people engage in, they are universally happier when they're fully engaged in that activity and not mind wandering, no matter what they're doing.

RAZ: Even when you're doing something you dislike like your morning commute, it's better when you are in the moment, when your mind isn't wandering.

KILLINGSWORTH: So we spend time worrying or having repetitive thoughts or escaping or disengaging from things we could really enjoy if we just directed our attention towards it.

RAZ: How do you do that? Like, how do you get to that place?

KILLINGSWORTH: That's the million-dollar question. And I don't know the answer.


PHARRELL WILLIAMS: (Singing) Happy, clap along if you feel like a room without a roof. Because I'm happy. Clap along...

SIMON: Matt Killingsworth. At least he's honest. With Guy Raz of the Ted Radio Hour. More ideas about happiness this weekend on that program.


WILLIAMS: (Singing) Because I'm happy, laugh along if you feel like that's what you want to do. Bring me down, (unintelligible) bring me down...

SIMON: This is NPR News.


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