Hacking Happiness: Why Your Personal Data Counts and How Tracking It Can Change the World (2015)
Most of the shadows of this life are caused by standing in one’s own sunshine.
RALPH WALDO EMERSON
MY DAD WAS a psychiatrist for more than forty years. This was the first question he’d ask all of his patients:
DR. HAVENS: Do you watch the eleven o’clock evening news?
PATIENT: Yes, I do.
DR. HAVENS: Stop watching the eleven o’clock evening news.
This may sound simplistic, but it echoes a core idea of a field of science known as positive psychology—to get happier, stop focusing on what makes you miserable. It’s no secret that, to get ratings, news shows feature some of the most horrific events that have happened throughout the day. You don’t have to avoid hearing about them, but you can plan on optimum times to focus on these types of messages during your day when they won’t affect you as negatively as other times. (Newsflash: Right before you go to bed is not one of those optimum times.)
Growing up with a psychiatrist for a father made a lot of kid experiences different for me than most. For instance, Take Your Child to Work Day wasn’t really an option for the son of a psychiatrist in the early seventies. Since my dad worked in a private practice, the only people who called him were his answering service and patients who got our home number. One time a patient called when I was about ten, and I answered the phone:
ME: Hello, Havens residence.
PATIENT: Is this John or Andy [my brother]?
PATIENT: John, I’m coming over to your house to kill your father.
Well, that sucked. After dropping the phone and running to tell my dad about the call, he calmly responded, “Was it a man? With a gravelly kind of voice?” I told him yes. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “That’s Richard. He’s harmless. He’s just lonely.”
Looking at my dad, reassuring me with a smile, I realized how heroic his work was. It’s hard to experience other people’s pain at point-blank range. The raw emotions most of us deal with on a sporadic basis were my dad’s daily bread. The fact that he got paid to do it was inconsequential; he would have done it for free. In fact, many times he would work with patients even if they couldn’t pay.
Note I said he would “work” with patients. This language is key. If you go see a therapist, you’re making a bold and admirable step. You’re seeking help. But once you get there, be ready to work. As a writer and actor, I’ve had the benefit of years of training around introspection. It doesn’t mean I can control my emotions, mind you; it just means I understand the need to measure how I feel and behave where I feel I need to improve.
I’m saying this because I don’t want to bullshit you in terms of Hacking H(app)iness. Taking measure of your life is hard. It should be. Otherwise it wouldn’t be rewarding. You’re worth the effort of deep self-reflection. That way, you get to discover what makes you tick. You’ll also learn what actions you can take to amplify the positive things in your life while decreasing the negative.
Here’s some more straight shooting for you: The majority of science around positive psychology shows that the mood of elevated feelings often associated with ephemeral happiness is fleeting. This type of happiness is called hedonic happiness (same root word as hedonism) and stems from short-lived experiences we get used to quickly. This doesn’t diminish the joy you’ll feel at these moments, like when you get a raise or buy a new car. But within a week or two, you may find yourself needing another rush from a similar type of experience, and you may get caught up on what’s called a “hedonic treadmill.” This means you’ll adjust, or habituate, your core level of happiness to this new event. Pretty soon it won’t bring the same pleasure it did at first.
This is the type of emotional experience most of us associate with happiness—the rush of romantic love, the thrill of an exotic vacation. These are normal, valid, and frankly awesome emotions to have. But you can prolong another type of happiness known as eudaimonic happiness by focusing on things that bring you intrinsic rewards. Eudaimonia is a word coined by Aristotle and is often translated as “human flourishing.” Flourishing implies a long-term state of being versus momentary mood. This is why, in academic or scientific discussions, people often use “well-being” instead of “happiness” to discuss these issues. “Happiness” in these contexts can be construed as mood, or the narcissistic pursuit of pleasure for pleasure’s sake alone. Eudaimonia, by contrast, refers to the highest human good one can achieve. By definition, seeking eudaimonic well-being implies an outward focus in order to flourish within. For the Greeks, this also meant interaction within one’s polis, or city, as helping others in the community was a way to increase long-term and intrinsic well-being.
Here’s some good news: I’m not going to give you a bullshitian how-to set of rules to follow in this book that will “guarantee your happiness.” The sobering, yet also good, news: I’m going to walk you through an amazing set of scientifically proven theories showing how you can work to identify the things that bring you meaning, and how you can amplify them to increase long-term well-being. But first you have to be willing to do the work.
It’s like the old psychiatrist joke my dad loved to tell:
DAD: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?
ME: How many?
DAD: Two. One to get the ladder, and the other to ask the lightbulb if he really wants to change.
The Science and the Sacrifice
Do you want to change? Do you want to work to improve your level of happiness? It’s okay if initially you think that this idea is a load of hooey. But don’t let that stop you from experimenting with the ideas you’ll discover from some of the leading scientists around the world. Rather than a self-help formula, however, a lot of what positive psychology reveals feels like common sense. It’s just common sense backed by science.
A big part of Hacking H(app)iness is about taking action to improve your well-being, and I want to provide some proactive tools to get you started right away.
Here’s my first recommendation: Go to Happify (www.happify .com) and sign up to try their site. Their five-part STAGE framework (Savor, Thank, Aspire, Give, Empathize) is based on the science of positive psychology. They point out on their site that “recent scientific breakthroughs reveal that happiness is a skill within your control.” This is backed up by a number of other psychologists and scientists. Like exercising your body, you can exercise areas of your life that will increase happiness. No time like the present—sacrifice a little bit of time and see how happy you are with your results.
When you go to the site to sign up, you’ll be asked to fill out a short survey (took me three minutes) to assess your happiness level, a number to show where you’re optimized and where you could improve. Then you’ll be given a number of tracks to choose from to help begin the work of improving your happiness. I chose the “strengthen your friendships” track, because even though I’m a very outgoing person, I’m also a homebody as a writer. I was given the “thanks for being awesome” task that asked me to write down three things I appreciated about my best friend. Here’s what I wrote:
· She listens to the details of my work even when I know she hasn’t always told me about her day.
· She is always thinking ahead for what’s best for our kids and our family.
· She loves me for who I am. That is not always easy for me to do.
I felt pleasure writing those words. It took about sixty seconds to think about how awesome my wife is, and I felt a renewed sense of blessing that she’s in my life.
I paused. I reflected. I remembered how freaking lucky I am. I got happier.
One of my favorite aspects of Happify is how, after you finish a task, you can click on their “Why It Works” button to read about the science behind the activity you’ve just done. Here’s what was listed after my “thanks for being awesome” exercise:
In a study conducted by Drs. Martin Seligman, Tracy Steen, and Christopher Peterson, a group of people was asked to practice this gratitude exercise every day for one week. Even though the exercise lasted just one week, at the one-month follow-up, participants were happier and less depressed than they had been at baseline, and they stayed happier and less depressed at the three- and six-month follow-ups. This practice primes our mind for gratitude and helps overcome the brain’s natural “negativity bias,” a phenomenon by which we are wired to give more weight to negative rather than positive experiences or other kinds of information.1
The negativity bias, by the way, is why my dad told people not to watch the news—you have to train yourself against your brain’s proclivity to heed negativity. Apparently it’s a remnant from caveman days when being aware of negative things like “that mammoth looks angry” or “neighbor Grog has ax aimed at my head” helped keep us alive. These days, that ancient bias means we feed off distressing news or even gossip.
Let it go, people. Mammoths are extinct. It’s time to focus on the positive.
A Complement to What’s Come Before
The science of positive psychology has been Hacking H(app)iness for over a decade now, helping people focus on ways to improve their well-being versus simply removing pain. Note the field is not trying to replace traditional psychoanalysis, but to complement it. Utilizing the scientific method in analyzing human behavior, the field seeks to prove that focusing only on people’s disorders could lead to an incomplete view of their condition. Here’s how the International Positive Psychology Association answers the question “Is positive psychology an abandoning or rejection of the rest of psychology?”:
In a word, no. [The] consequence of this focus on psychological problems, however, is that psychology has little to say about what makes life most worth living. Positive psychology proposes to correct this imbalance by focusing on strengths as well as weaknesses, on building the best things in life as well as repairing the worst. It asserts that human goodness and excellence is just as authentic as distress and disorder, that life entails more than the undoing of problems.2
In a similar fashion, Gross National Happiness and other metrics of well-being around the world are widening people’s perspectives around measuring value. While measuring wealth is an important metric, it isn’t the only determinant of happiness or well-being. In his book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, Martin Seligman agrees with this sentiment, noting that if all that is being measured by GDP is money, policy will be focused only on getting more money. By measuring well-being, policy will reflect a wider scope of measures beyond fiscal wealth.
In terms of your life, if all you measure is the negative, guess what you’ll focus on?
In terms of your digital life, if your main priority is increasing your online influence, you’ll discover the hedonic treadmill firsthand (literally—your thumbs are probably tired from posting on Facebook). If you measure your life only by your Klout score, you’ll never achieve long-lasting happiness.
To increase our well-being, we need to look beyond ourselves.
Martin Seligman and PERMA
A great way to introduce yourself to the work of Martin Seligman is to listen to his talk about the state of psychology from a TED Conference in 2004.3 In about twenty minutes, Seligman walks through specifics on the nature of traditional psychoanalysis and how positive psychology as a science is now complementing the study and improvement of well-being. Seligman is called the father of positive psychology, although there are others, like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Sonja Lyubomirsky, who are also credited with creating the field (we’ll discuss them in future chapters on the concepts of flow and altruism).
Here’s how Wikipedia defines positive psychology:
Positive psychology is a recent branch of psychology whose purpose was summed up in 1998 by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: “We believe that a psychology of positive human functioning will arise, which achieves a scientific understanding and effective interventions to build thriving individuals, families, and communities.” Positive psychologists seek “to find and nurture genius and talent” and “to make normal life more fulfilling,” rather than merely treating mental illness.4
In Seligman’s recent book Flourish, he discusses his idea of PERMA,5 or the five measurable elements of well-being (versus happiness), the primary focus for positive psychology.
POSITIVE EMOTION—You can act on this by being grateful, either by journaling or telling someone else how they improve your life.
ENGAGEMENT—You can act on this by identifying the core skills you think you were built to accomplish. This is the idea of discovering your “flow,” a term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi that we’ll discuss in a future chapter. When you achieve a state of flow, you don’t feel anything in the moment, since you’re so deeply involved in what you’re doing. It’s after a task is completed and you reflect on it that you feel a deep sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.
RELATIONSHIPS—You can act on relationships, but since they include other people, they become multifaceted but necessary aspects of improving well-being.
MEANING—You can act on this by serving a purpose bigger than your own fulfillment. Like the Greek focus in eudaimonia about civic engagement, meaning is created from outside of yourself, not solely from within.
ACHIEVEMENT—You can act on this when you pursue success, accomplishment, and mastery for their own sakes, even if they bring no positive emotion or increase in positive relationships. Similar to the idea of flow, people often pursue achievement in things like sports for the sheer joy of participating in that activity. As an example of this, in Flourish, Seligman quotes the actor playing famous Olympic runner Eric Liddell in the film Chariots of Fire: “I believe that God made me for a purpose . . . But he also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”6
In Flourish, Seligman points out that PERMA and well-being are constructs, where happiness is a “real thing.” In positive psychology as well as economics, measuring happiness is often done by asking people to fill out a survey question focused on “life satisfaction.” Typically this contains either a seven- or ten-point scale, where one indicates low life satisfaction and seven or ten indicates high life satisfaction. These scales are a useful tool because they ask people to provide their subjective perspective on how they feel about a certain experience or aspect of their lives. While they may be affected by survey bias, a term meaning they know they’re being asked a question and may change their answer based on that awareness, they’re providing a truth that nobody can deny. Subjective in nature, employing a large-scale survey about citizens’ life satisfaction around a certain issue lets a government discover the answer to “How are we doing in this area?”
So while a happiness-focused survey can measure a singular subjective question with rigor, well-being, as Seligman defines it, contains multiple measurable elements versus one overarching answer. Each element contributes to well-being, but doesn’t define it as a whole.
Seligman is the director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and his site, Authentic Happiness, features a number of helpful surveys you can fill out to learn more about your attributes as they pertain to PERMA and other positive psychology-related elements. I found the Grit Survey particularly helpful. It has twenty-two questions and took about five minutes to fill out. According to the site, “Grit is perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Our research suggests that grittier individuals accomplish very difficult challenges.” I got a three out of five, which I found to be quite interesting. While I thought my score might have been higher, I tried to answer the questions as truthfully as possible, a process I found enlightening.
A final word from Seligman about the nature of positive relationships in relation to PERMA: “Very little that is positive is solitary,” he notes in Flourish. He quotes his friend Stephen Post, professor of medical humanities at State University of New York at Stony Brook, relating a story about his mother. When Stephen, as a boy, looked flustered or upset, his mother would encourage him to “go out and help someone.” As it turns out, this piece of maternal wisdom has empirical backing, as Seligman notes, “We scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single more reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.”7
As my mom said this same thing to me, apparently I was raised by two experts in psychology, not just one. I’m a more positive person because of it.
Positive Psychology at Work
“With the science of happiness and positive psychology, we’re focusing on what’s right with us and fine-tuning those things—like our sense of progress, control, connectedness, and purpose—to become happier people,” noted Jenn Lim.8 Jenn is the CEO and chief happiness officer at Delivering Happiness at Work, the workplace consultancy created by Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com and author of the best seller Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose. The company is one of a growing group of organizations utilizing principles of positive psychology to inspire increased business value along with inspired employees.
In 2002, Gallup quantified a link between employee feelings and ROI, reporting that lost productivity due to employee disengagement costs more than $350 billion in the United States every year.9 In recent years, there’s been a shift to quantify positive emotions or happiness in the workplace as a way to increase revenue, rather than simply worry about loss due to employee disengagement.
An interesting aspect of the study of happiness at work has to do with global cultural attitudes of emotions and their place in the enterprise. I interviewed Marise Schot, a concept developer and head of the Happiness Lab at the Waag Society in Amsterdam who also founded her own design studio, to gauge how she felt U.S. attitudes toward emotion at work were different from those of the Dutch.
My experience is that in the U.S.A. the existence of emotions is less present in daily life, and also less accepted than in the Netherlands. What I noticed was that food was used to treat yourself or as a way to take a break (the stroll to the Starbucks, lunch meeting with colleagues) or when you think you deserved it. For us Europeans, this idea of having food manage your moods and needs was not something that we recognized. But it makes perfect sense as you relate this with the American dream, where you are expected to work hard in order to become successful—there is no room for emotions.10
I find this fascinating, that the perception of American culture could be that people in the United States don’t have time for emotions regarding work, or that an excuse might be required to go off-site to express one’s feelings. Where food in Marise’s example is the instigator of expression, sensors or other technology aligned with consulting practices like the ones offered by Delivering Happiness appear to be providing permission for Americans and other workers to identify and benefit from positive emotions embraced within the workplace. And while the idea of quantifying happiness in the enterprise may seem fluffy at first, Jenn Lim points out this phase of doubt will pass:
There’s always going to be naysayers, but now that we’ve developed ways to tie workplace benefits back to scientific, measured happiness, even they can’t deny the correlation between happier employees, happier customers, and more successful long-term sustainable business. In five to ten years, happiness in the workplace won’t be a novel idea—it’ll be an economically proven and understood model that organizations will use as a way to ensure long-term sustainable and profitable brands. In an even shorter time, more individuals will recognize that happiness should be prioritized both at home and at work.11
Kristine Maudal is a partner and CFO (chief fun officer) at Brainwells, an innovation consultancy based in Oslo, Norway, helping companies foster happier and more productive workplaces and focusing on a “return on involvement” versus just standard ROI. I interviewed Kristine on the subject of happiness at work, and she noted the importance of being able to measure progress based on employee engagement.
I do definitely think that happiness at work can be measured and improved. But it is important to define what we mean by happiness. Scholars, researchers, consultants, press, everyone is talking about the importance of work-life happiness and satisfaction, but only a few know how to create it. What we know is that people really like to be seen, heard, and involved. That makes them happy. And engaged. Engaged people make better work. That creates happy leaders. It is a good circle.12
A final point on the idea of positive psychology at work: Whatever cultural biases we may have, the fact remains that adults spend the majority of their lives in an office or work setting. When fifty to sixty hours a week (minimum) are spent at work, it’s time we recognized that not focusing on creating well-being and happiness at our jobs means we’re ignoring a large part of our emotional life for the decades we’re in the workforce. The organizations that embrace methodologies to leverage positive well-being and happiness for their employees are certainly more likely to see benefits in the future than the ones that don’t.
Compassion Is Catching
There’s a debate among scientists about human nature regarding selfishness. Are we wired only to think about ourselves? It makes sense to think that, in an evolutionary process, helping others probably wouldn’t be the best way to keep your own species alive. But a good deal of science in the field of positive psychology has revealed how compassion may be hardwired into us via the neurons and hormones that are a part of our brains.
Greater Good is a website and publication created by the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) based at the University of California, Berkeley. The GGSC’s mission is to “study the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being, and [teach] skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society.” In his article “The Compassionate Instinct” for the site, Dacher Keltner provides a number of scientific studies documenting altruism and compassion, including research conducted at Emory University:
In other research by Emory University neuroscientists James Rilling and Gregory Berns, participants were given the chance to help someone else while their brain activity was recorded. Helping others triggered activity in the caudate nucleus and anterior cingulate, portions of the brain that turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure. This is a rather remarkable finding: helping others brings the same pleasure we get from the gratification of personal desire.13
The article also described the presence of a hormone known as oxytocin in our bodies that floats through our bloodstream. Keltner conducted a number of studies and found that when people perform behaviors associated with compassion (warm smiles, friendly hand gestures), their bodies produced more oxytocin. The suggestion of this behavior, as Keltner points out, is that “compassion may be self-perpetuating: Being compassionate causes a chemical reaction in the body that motivates us to be even more compassionate.”14
I first learned about oxytocin and its relation to compassion when I interviewed15 filmmaker, publisher, and workshop producer Eiji Han Shimizu. Shimizu is on the advisory committee for the H(app)athon Project that I founded and has a unique program that combines Zen meditation with entertainment. He was also a producer for the Happy movie.
One of the best ways to learn a majority of the newest ideas around positive psychology is to watch this film. For a number of months in 2013, it was the highest-rated documentary on iTunes, and has won more than a dozen awards to date. Featuring multiple interviews from leading psychologists and other experts, its power lies primarily in the interviews of people from around the world and their attitudes toward happiness in their own lives.
Shimizu had a thriving career in Tokyo before working on Happy. But in our interview, he related that success in business wasn’t helping him improve his well-being. In fact, the more successful he became, the more stress he felt. Sadly, as the documentary points out, Japan has, for many years, had the highest suicide rate of any developed country. Stress is at an all-time high as many young men and women seek to increase their productivity and wealth above all else. The cost for this singular focus has been alarmingly high.
Leaving Japan to pursue work on the film changed Shimizu’s life. Happy took a number of years to create, and now that it’s been released, Shimizu is leading workshops to help others discover and foster their own well-being. In our interview, I asked Shimizu what he thought was the most surprising thing he had learned while working on the film.
The most surprising thing to me was that we’d been commissioned to make a film about happiness, but what we ended up making was a documentary on compassion. After interviewing a number of scientists, they verified that having a compassionate mind-set is the best booster of happiness. Again and again, science has verified the strong correlation between happiness and the good heart.
This correlation is based on the discovery of mirror neurons and how they relate to oxytocin. Essentially, oxytocin is released when you are kind to someone else, or even when you see someone do a kindness for someone else. The basic idea is that you can feel a sense of compassion in the process even if you’re just witnessing it.
That’s why I think we human beings have survived for so long, along with our intellect. It’s not just about survival of the fittest. Survival involves the intellect, but compassion plays an equal role in the process.16
How encouraging to know that even witnessing acts of compassion can increase physical changes in our minds and bodies that increase our well-being. These can be experienced to a certain degree in digital realms, although face-to-face sightings17 provide more lasting results. Seeking to flourish by looking for the positive, instead of subjecting ourselves to the negative, has scientific basis in positive psychology. Looking within to examine what brings us meaning and outward to learn from or help others is a path that can lead to increased happiness.
But we do have to look.