Quantifying Happiness Harvard researchers have developed a Web tool for volunteers to record what they're doing and how they feel while doing it. The goal? To measure happiness. Doctoral student Matt Killingsworth describes some early results suggesting many people aren't "living in the moment."

Quantifying Happiness

Quantifying Happiness

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Harvard researchers have developed a Web tool for volunteers to record what they're doing and how they feel while doing it. The goal? To measure happiness. Doctoral student Matt Killingsworth describes some early results suggesting many people aren't "living in the moment."


For the rest of the hour: if you're happy and you know it, well, you might want to report on it and share that experience with the rest of us. Researchers in the psychology department at Harvard have developed an iPhone Web app that tracks people's happiness.

How happy do you feel as you go through your daily life or your activity? If you go to trackyourhappiness.org and answer some questions about yourself, you can trace your happiness too. After you sign up, you'll get email notices all day long asking you to report on what you're doing. Like right now, how do you feel? How do feel about the activity that you're doing? Are you happy about it?

And so far, the researchers have collected data from a couple of thousand volunteers. They published some results of their happiness tracking in this week's issue of Science. And among their findings: many of us are not living in the moment. No. And this is causing us some unhappiness.

Joining me now to talk more about the work is the author - one of the authors of the paper, Matt Killingsworth, doctoral science student in psychology at Harvard University in Cambridge. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. MATT KILLINGSWORTH (Harvard University): Thank you.

FLATOW: How do you define happiness? I went on there and I'm trying to - you know, you move that little slider around, how happy am I. How much do I know where to push it?

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: Exactly. So there are a lot of different facets to people's happiness and well-being. In the case of this study, we're measuring people's happiness in real time. So we're actually, as you mentioned, tracking people's experience in real time and trying to understand to what extent do they feel good or bad in the moment as they're going about their lives.

FLATOW: Have you found - can you collect this and tell us some data already about when most people feel happy?

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: Well, the results that we published this week had to do with the relationship between mind-wandering and happiness. So we analyzed the -people's answers to three questions, in particular. We asked people how they felt at a specific moment in their day, and they could respond on a scale ranging from very bad to very good. That was our measure of happiness. Second, we asked them what they were doing, and they could respond on a list of 22 different activities, including things like talking or working or exercising.

And then finally, we asked them if they were thinking about something other than what they were doing. And they could either say, no, which is to say they were focused on their task. Or they could say, yes, I am thinking about something else. And the topic of those thoughts is either pleasant, neutral or unpleasant. We classified any of those yes answers as mind-wandering.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And you found - if I read some of your - some of the popular accounts of it that people who were sitting at their PCs were unhappy.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: So in the same results, we also - we show sort of the range of happiness across the different activities in life, and that was actually something people seem to be fairly unhappy doing.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And how many people do you want to collect data on? How many -what was...

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: As many as possible.


Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: I think right - go ahead.

FLATOW: Yeah, go ahead. I'm sorry.

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: I think we have about 5,000 right now. There's really no upper limit. I think as we continue to expand, we can study more things. And, you know, as we expand to other countries as well, being able to do comparisons in terms of people's real-time experience across different locations is really interesting.

FLATOW: And you say that mind-wandering, when people's minds wander, they're at their unhappiest state. But we keep hearing about people doing all this multitasking, their mind is going all over the place.

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: Yeah. So there are three main results that we present in the paper. The first one is that people seem to be mind-wandering a lot. About 47 percent of the time, people said they were thinking about something other than what they were doing. And that rate of mind-wandering was greater than 30 percent in every activity, except one. So it really seems to be something that's pervading people's experience essentially no matter what they're doing.

FLATOW: Yeah. So which comes first? Does your mind wandering make you unhappy, or you're just unhappy sitting there and then your mind wanders?

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: That's a great question. So we did see the strong negative relationship between mind-wandering and happiness, such that people who mind-wandered were unhappy, both when they were wandering, and people who mind-wandered more often were more unhappy on average. Of course, it's possible that mind-wandering is causing unhappiness, but it's also possible that people are mind-wandering because they're unhappy to begin with.

To try to tease that apart, we looked at how these things are structured in time to see does mind-wandering precede unhappiness, or does unhappiness precede mind-wandering? And the data suggests that mind-wandering really is a cause of unhappiness. And while the reverse may be true, we don't see much evidence for that in our data.

FLATOW: You don't see evidence with it, yeah. So what activities, I guess, the activities where your mind is not wandering make you the happiest? What activities would those be?

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: Yeah, the one activity where people reported a very low rate of mind-wandering was when they were having sex, which was about 10 percent. I think the next activity where the rate of mind-wandering was lowest were doing things like talking to other people. Active leisure activities had mind-wandering rates around 30, 35 percent...

FLATOW: So, wait a minute...

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: ...all the way up to about...

FLATOW: So wait a minute, if you're getting a text message to say, are you happy, that would interrupt sex. You'd have to reply to the text message.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: Hopefully, you would reply a few minutes later.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: You know, if someone's swimming, they don't have their iPhone inside their swimsuit...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: ...to pull out and...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: ...answer our - for our study. And once they're able to get to that, we ask them to respond as soon as they can. And I think the same thing is true, hopefully, across all activities.

FLATOW: Based on what you have found, can you say that mind-wandering is - is it more like worrying? Is it ruminating as opposed to, like, daydreaming about being on the beach in the Caribbean or something like that?

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: Yeah. We see all of those things happening. So when we asked people to categorize their mind wandering as either pleasant, neutral or unpleasant, we see a fairly equal split across those things: a little bit more pleasant than neutral, and a little bit more neutral than unpleasant.

What's perhaps even more interesting is that, when we look at the relationship between those different topics of mind-wandering and happiness, not surprisingly, we see a huge negative relationship between unpleasant mind-wandering and happiness. So it's actually incredibly - seems to be incredibly destructive to happiness to be doing things like worrying. But even when we look at pleasant mind-wandering, that's actually still not quite as good as just being focused on what you're doing.

FLATOW: Right. Right. Well - and that would say that if you're happiest being focused on what you're doing, then maybe you should try to find things to help you stay focused, right?

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: Absolutely.

FLATOW: Methods, techniques, something like that? Maybe that's why we have some of these, you know, some of the great advice you get about focusing and maybe, you know, mantras and things like that make you happy.

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: Yeah. I think this is an idea that's been around for a long time. And I think a lot of people have developed techniques, formal and informal, that may help people in this respect. The extent to which those things work and how people might go about it is certainly one of the things that we'll be looking at in the future.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let me see if I can get a quick phone call or two in here. Charles(ph) in Denver. Hi, Charles.

CHARLES (Caller): Hi. I really love the subject here because I think it kind of ties in with the last scientist speaking as well. But something I've been working on in a sculptural form in probably for, like, 15 years now is the fact that, you know, being present is like one set of data. Okay? And then what you happen to be thinking about is another set of data. And if those two sets of data are too far apart from each other, they create a certain logarithm when they intersect. And... are you kind of flowing with me on this a little bit? That what happens is that if they're too out of synch, the logarithm becomes too erratical and it starts to tear itself apart. And I've done these studies with sculptures. And the sculptures start to tear each other apart.

And I'm wondering if you had kind of thought about it from that perspective, that, you know, mind-wandering is not so bad if it's closely tied to where you are at that point or present. But the further it gets away from it, the more radical the logarithm, because if you look at the logarithm from a bird's eye perspective, it starts to sway and move so much.

FLATOW: All right. Let me get a reaction to the logarithm idea. Matt, what do you think?

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: Sure. I think the closest thing to that that our data can speak to is something that to me was quite surprising, which is the happiness that people are deriving from their activity seems to be almost completely independent from the happiness or unhappiness they're deriving from their mind-wandering. In other words, if I'm doing something that's quite enjoyable or unenjoyable, that had almost no influence on the pleasantness of the thoughts that I'm having. People could be doing something very enjoyable and thinking about something terrible. And they're both strong influences on happiness but unrelated to each other.

FLATOW: Hmm. We're talking about mind-wandering this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow talking with Matt Killingsworth, a doctoral student in psychology at Harvard, about his paper published this week in Science.

So where do you go from here? How can you advance what you already know?

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: Well, I think there are a lot of questions that come out of this work. One is why we see the relationship we do. I think the fact that mind-wandering and unhappiness are so strongly related is partly due to the fact that people are doing things like worrying when they mind-wander.

But there is this overall negative effective that isn't just the result of those kinds of negative thoughts. So what's going on with that? Is it - to what extent is that impoverishing people's experience when they start to get distracted? You know, that intuitively seems reasonably but I think we need more data to try to understand what's happening.

FLATOW: And if people want to participate in your study, they go to trackyourhappiness.org?

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: Exactly. This is still active and growing. We would love to continue this long into the future. Anyone with an iPhone can go to trackyourhappiness.org, really make an incredibly useful contribution to the project and hopefully learn some things about the causes of their own happiness as well.

FLATOW: Any possibility of an Android app coming out?

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: Yes, absolutely. That's one of the things that everyone has wanted to do. And basically, resource constraints are the only reason we don't have it yet, but we absolutely will.

FLATOW: All right. I want to thank you for taking time to be with us. And good luck to you. How many - we'll try to tweak up that number that are going to go to trackyourhappiness.org for you.

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: It sounds great. Thank you so much.

FLATOW: How many would you like to get?

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: Boy, there's no upper limit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: Twenty thousand, 50,000?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: All right. We'll see. Go to sciencefriday.org and tell us if you're going to participate, then go over to trackyourhappiness.org. Thank you very much for taking time to be with us, Matt.

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: Thank you so much. You're welcome.

FLATOW: Matt Killingsworth, a doctoral student in psychology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: One final note before we go. Last Friday, we had an hour-long debate on science and morality. And during that broadcast, one of our guests, the author Sam Harris, made some disparaging comments about the Catholic Church, attacking the Catholic Church. And we've been receiving quite a bit of feedback about those comments on our website, on Twitter and in personal letters.

And to answer, you know, your comments in part, I'd like to read part of a letter we received from Jim Marley(ph) in Nyack, New York, which I think speaks to the concerns of Catholics who were offended by Mr. Harris's comments.

And he writes: Sam Harris' remarks relatives - relative to the Catholic Church fit all the definitions, his remark fit all the definition of hate speech and no one of - on the broadcast seemed to notice. I write this letter not as any kind of watchdog or NPR speech monitor. I am not condoning the horrible behaviors of some of the people and leaders of the Catholic Church that have come to light in the last few years.

I'm just one of your listeners who is a Catholic, taught by my church to try to live my life in a compassionate and healing way. I write this letter in the name of Catholics who give their service freely and lovingly around the world, people who are the empirical facts that counter Mr. Harris's gross caricatures.

His throwing of their moral voices to the trash heap is shameful. Some of those voices are famous such as Bishop Oscar Romero, machine-gunned to death while saying Mass. And to the Maryknoll nuns who were murdered in El Salvador, all killed because of their efforts to speak for the poor. There are, of course, thousands more who are not famous, but whose lives and moral vision could be honored and should be honored and not trashed.

If you missed that broadcast, you'd like to hear the whole broadcast on Sam Harris's comments, you can go to our website at sciencefriday.com.

That's about all the time we have for this week. And I'd like to tell you that Greg Smith composed our theme music. And we had help today from NPR librarian Kee Malesky. If you missed any part of our program or if you'd like it - like to take it along and listen to it again, you can go to our website. It's scienccefriday.com and sign up for a podcast. Also, you can download our iPhone app and gain instant access to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Also, our Video Pick of the Week is up there. And you can download that also and take that along with you and - or subscribe. Get them sent to you every week.

I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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