Hacking Happiness: Why Your Personal Data Counts and How Tracking It Can Change the World (2015)
THE VALUE OF A HAPPINESS ECONOMY
You know what’s truly weird about any financial crisis? WE MADE IT UP. Currency, money, finance, they’re all social inventions. When the sun comes up in the morning it’s shining on the same physical landscape, all the atoms are in place.1
THE IDEA OF THE economy as a concept has always been elusive to me. It always seemed boring. Much of economics is based on statistics, and I was never great with numbers. Analyzing data about global populations has always mystified me, and I’ve avoided thinking about economics because it seemed so foreign to my interests.
I’ve changed my perspective.
When you measure something, you analyze one specific data point—you step on a scale to determine your weight, for instance. But measurement also involves intent. Why are you weighing yourself? For an annual physical, where your weight could determine follow-up care, or to see if you’ll fit into a bikini? You use the same scale for both procedures, but for very different ends.
Currency was invented by humans. Squirrels don’t use nuts to buy dental floss. As noted in Chapter Ten, a monarch from days gone by minted coins with his image and mandated they be used as a form of exchange. This forced citizens to provide food and clothes to soldiers, and eventually they adopted the coins as being a symbolic representation of stuff.
I found a great definition and description of economics on a website called Investopedia:
DEFINITION OF “ECONOMICS”
A social science that studies how individuals, governments, firms, and nations make choices on allocating scarce resources to satisfy their unlimited wants.
INVESTOPEDIA EXPLAINS “ECONOMICS”
Classical economists believe that markets function very well, will quickly react to any changes in equilibrium, and that a “laissez-faire” government policy works best. On the other hand, Keynesian economists believe that markets react very slowly to changes in equilibrium (especial[ly] to changes in prices) and that active government intervention is sometimes the best method to get the economy back into equilibrium.2
Economics may be based on statistics, but the analysis is based on the interpretation of economists. Economists have intent and bias when they report on the present and future state of the world.
My bias is that you should own your data, as it exists now and in the future. This is key to your future happiness. My intent is to demonstrate that the exchange of data in our current Internet economy is an occluded and confusing process. It favors data collectors over data producers (you) in an unfair value exchange.
Here are some equations to reiterate my point:
Our current Internet economy:
We use computers a lot +
Companies track our behavior while we’re on computers +
This tracking is interpreted as data that represents a form of our identities +
Most of us don’t understand how much we’re exchanging for “free” services +
Data brokers are not legally mandated to reveal the data they’ve collected about us
= Data brokers sell our data/identities for money.
= We don’t get paid in this process.
= Transactional value is not transparent in this process.
= This process has eroded trust.
Our Internet economy in the near future:
(Nothing changes from the previous equation) +
Augmented reality expands data collection into the unchartered virtual realm +
Data from sensors never available before broadcasts our personal information +
Machines and objects around us collect and broadcast data about us at all times
= Our identities and actions are exposed and for sale without our full knowledge or control.
= There are no set standards for all of this data collection/exposure.
= There are no ethical standards for all of this data collection/exposure.
The key issue in these equations is one of economics, not privacy. And as Investopedia defines it, economics is a social science. These issues of data are social in nature.
So here’s my bias for this book: You’re worth more than money. Your data and identity are not just items to be sold; they represent who you are. Data is currency, the same as if it were minted by a monarch, the same as if yourimage were on a coin.
Your data is you. If you don’t own or recognize it, how can you measure its value for your life?
So here’s a new equation for today and the future:
The happiness economy:
People own and control their own data +
Data quantified about our lives is oriented to reveal actions and words that give us meaning +
We take measure of our lives in ways we never have before +
We improve our happiness and well-being by actions informed from self-analysis +
We utilize happiness indicator metrics for a new global standard of value measurement
= We base our well-being on transparent and ethical metrics.
= We have positively oriented personal and global measures of value.
This vision is not metaphorical. The technology to measure and evaluate a happiness economy exists today. We’re at a seminal crossroads in history that does not have to lead to an inevitable technological dystopia.
· We can break open the data model that exists today and leverage the information about our lives to increase well-being and positive change.
· We can stop thinking of ourselves as broken vessels in need of repair versus individuals ripe with promise, poised for greatness.
· We can embrace self-measure and empowered action to change our lives for good.
We can Hack H(app)iness.
The Value of a Happiness Economy
The Mashable article I wrote that inspired this book provides a number of examples of how the happiness economy already exists in a number of environments today that haven’t coalesced under one formal taxonomy.
I’ve reprinted the article as a way to set the stage for future chapters about happiness metrics trending around the world to prove that a happiness economy is as viable and real as the current economy we’ve created for ourselves.
THE VALUE OF A HAPPINESS ECONOMY
What if generosity were a currency? This was a question posed by the Danish chocolate company Anthon Berg for its recent Generous Store campaign. The company opened a pop-up store for one day in Copenhagen last winter and distributed chocolate as payment to individuals who promised to perform a generous deed for a loved one.
Chocolate lovers posted to the company’s Facebook page, sharing promises like “serving breakfast in bed.” Then they picked up their chocolate payment at the store and essentially broadcast to their social graph to “pay it forward.”
Research suggests that paying it forward is something the average person enjoys. Søren Christensen, a partner in Anthon Berg’s ad agency, says his company’s findings showed that seven out of ten people were happy when they did something good for other people. But only one out of ten people ever experienced generosity on a daily basis.
Why the disparity, and why does it matter?
Two reasons. First, there’s a growing movement to standardize the metrics around well-being that can lead to happiness. Second, the combination of Big Data, your social graph, and artificial intelligence means everyone will soon be able to measure individual progress toward well-being, set against the backdrop of all humanity’s pursuit to do the same. In the near future, our virtual identity will be easily visible by emerging technology like Google’s Project Glass and our actions will be just as trackable as our influence. We have two choices in this virtual arena: Work to increase the well-being of others and the world, or create a hierarchy of influence based largely on popularity.
Metrics, Not Mood
If you’re thinking the study of happiness and well-being seems flaky, you’re missing a major trend that’s beginning to influence a number of global economies.
At the recent United Nations Summit, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated that “Gross National Product (GDP) fails to take into account the social and environmental costs of so-called progress.” In other words, measuring well-being is not the pursuit of identifying the ephemeral emotion of happiness. It’s about looking at a deeper level of “economic, social, and environmental objectives that are most effectively pursued in a holistic manner.”
And economics alone are not the primary driver of well-being. Statistics show, for instance, that after a person or family receives a salary of $75,000 per year, increasing the amount of money brought home doesn’t increase a feeling of well-being.
Jeffrey Sachs, the renowned economist from Columbia University who edited the first World Happiness Report for the UN, certainly comes to the same conclusion. He said, “The U.S. has had a three-time increase of GNP per capita since 1960, but the happiness needle hasn’t budged.” The report, which provides scientific evidence that happiness can be reliably measured and is meaningful, notes that the U.S. [is] not as happy as other countries because of a too-prominent focus on boosting the economy—while largely ignoring long-term effects on environment or holistic education. (The Danes, however, were listed as the happiest people on the planet by Sachs’s report—apparently Anthon Berg is onto something with their Wonka-onian economics.)
The study of happiness is a burgeoning field of study around the world, with scientists and other experts providing hard data as to the benefits of a balanced approach to well-being versus too singular a focus on money or self.
“Our goal is to get people thinking more deeply about what happiness is and what is the connection between themselves and their community and world,” says Laura Musikanski, the executive director and cofounder of the Happiness Initiative, an organization inspired by Bhutan’s ideas on Gross National Happiness, also known as GNH. They even created a survey geared to measure ten metrics of well-being, which include material well-being, physical health, and time balance.
Her site also contains an excellent history of happiness research that provides important data-related insight. For example, although ephemeral happiness may come about due to a combination of luck, timing, or fate, the emerging science of happiness proposes that “our actions determine 40 percent of happiness, and that well-being can be both synthetically created and habitually formed.”
This may be the biggest reason for our desire to measure this space, and several takes on measuring it have popped up. The quantified self movement has exploded, and Nicholas Fenton’s practice of chronicling information for his annual life’s report has inspired others to follow his lead via Daytum and other self-monitoring services. Ariana Huffington also recently announced her GPS for the Soul, an app that provides a “course-correcting mechanism for your mind, body, and spirit.”
The natural next step in this process, then, is to marry the collective metrics of individuals to form a collective virtual picture of a community or country. Mirroring the goals of GPS for the Soul, it would be simple to map GNH/well-being metrics to existing technology like Mint.com that provides updates on how to maintain material well-being or Project Noah that encourages more access to nature. Via this methodology, our lives could become a virtual h(app)athon, with technology doling out advice on how to flourish, while proactively helping others.
The Efficacy of Fun
But as with any behavior or state of mind, it will take a village. “A really important part of changing behavior is social reinforcement,” says C. Lincoln (Link) Hoewing, assistant vice president for Internet and Technology Issues for Verizon and frequent contributor to Verizon’s Policy Blog. “You start seeing and comparing yourself to others more when you know that other people can find out what you’re doing.”
This form of accountability-based influence (ABI) is most effective when eliciting a positive response. As an example, Hoewing noted Volkswagen’s Fun Theory campaign, whose Piano Stairs YouTube video has received almost 18 million views to date. For the campaign, a set of stairs in a Stockholm subway [was] outfitted with full-size piano keys that played notes as people walked on them, resulting in 66 percent more people than normal choosing the stairs over the nearby escalator. It’s a simple leap to picture this event being geared toward a community metric of well-being, where the GNH for Stockholm would have risen the day of the campaign.
The Currency of Community
Brands are certainly learning to leverage well-being in the form of corporate social responsibility known as shared value. While bringing happiness to consumers via a product or service is not unique, bringing happiness to a community is just coming into widespread acceptance. “We want to set in motion an upward spiral of confidence,” stated Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz in his Letter to America last August. This included the company’s Create Jobs for USA program, which has seeded $5 million to provide capital grants for underserved community businesses.
“The idea of the initiative is to create happiness coming from economic well-being,” states Adam Brotman, chief digital officer for Starbucks. The company also recently announced its Store Partnership Model, where pilot community organizations in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood and Los Angeles’s Crenshaw neighborhood will share in the profits of a Starbucks store. A minimum of $100,000 for each organization will seed programs geared toward job and life skill development, positive learning environments, and overall health and wellness in the community.
“We’re in the happiness and people business,” says Brotman, referring to the shared value mentality that a social business can be generous and profitable at the same time. “A thriving or happy community is something that’s good for everybody.”
When Actions Create Identity
In about three to five years, it won’t matter if you’d rather not project your actions to the world—your virtual footprint will simply be too hard to conceal. Your preferences combined with the data generated by external forces will in essence make everything, including objects, inherently interactive.
“What’s a social network for data?” asks Jim Karkanias, an executive at Microsoft who runs the company’s Health Solutions Group, and has been working on a range of projects that broach the physical and computing worlds. “We’re imagining biology versus silicon as the next platform in which we write software.” Karkanias uses a form of prototyping for his work based on Project Hieroglyph, a movement that encourages science fiction writers to infuse their work with optimism that can inspire a new generation to “get big stuff done.” “Science fiction sets the stage for people to imagine things bigger than reality,” says Karkanias, noting that adhering to practicality in ideation tends to create a narrow experience that limits imagination and hinders happiness.
Data already has its own social networks: RFID tags, M2M (machine-to-machine) sensors in cars, and the Internet of Things let machines trade information without the need for human intervention. The self-tracking craze with humans combined with this ubiquitous data means highly personalized and proactive information can be aggregated to inform our actions on a minute scale. The advent of things like Google Glass means we’ll be able to virtually see other people’s data as well as eventually record our entire existence. Our lives will be tagged and ranked as semantic information fed into a massive global algorithm that could be geared toward inspiring positive behavior.
Karkanias agrees: “Artificial intelligence in the form of a perpetual life coach will live at the information level providing guidance on every aspect of your day.”
Technology of this kind will likely manifest itself in a reverse Siri interface, with a GPS-like voice guiding you on issues both personal and macro. The societal impact could shift negative personal patterns as well as a community or country’s Gross National Happiness.
Karkanias provides an example of this model where you’re in your car and take a route that passes a McDonald’s. As your coach knows your health issues regarding cholesterol, it adjusts the route of your self-driving car to the nearest Whole Foods to map to your GNH/well-being metric regarding health. Likewise, cameras in a subway car utilizing facial recognition technology might scan the face of a woman who is four months pregnant and send you a text to give her your seat to map to her GNH/well-being metric of psychological well-being. Emerging services like Sickweather will provide health-related predictive data that will affect whole communities regarding metrics of time, balance, and well-being.
Inspiration versus Ignorance
Some pundits say that privacy is disappearing, but that doesn’t mean we should let our identities be dictated by outside forces. Unfortunately, people are largely unaware of the repercussions of giving away personal information as we enter a virtual era where information can be accessed by so many parties so easily.
“People are not fully aware of the data they generate and how that’s coupled with artificial intelligence learning algorithms. It’s creating a different social and economic order, and we’re in the midst of that happening now,” states John Clippinger, founder and executive director of idcubed.org and a scientist at the MIT Media Lab Human Dynamics Group, where he is conducting research on trust frameworks for protecting and sharing personal information. He feels the inevitable onset of ubiquitous data meshing with synthetic biology and people’s social graphs can be a positive evolution if the whole process takes place in the open.
This transparency is the key. Fostering a culture based on GNH and mapped by existing technology provides a positive path toward the future. We should emulate chocolatier Anthon Berg and let generosity be our currency. Our lives will be sweeter for the choice.3