Hacking Happiness: Why Your Personal Data Counts and How Tracking It Can Change the World (2015)
An excessive focus on happiness would seem to be almost disrespectful to the wide range of possible human emotions that lift us up, teach us, and make life rich and varied. A more thoughtful goal, or intention, or reason to try tracking mood, is simply to increase awareness. The act of pausing to check in with yourself about how you’re feeling in different situations, as well as looking back to similar situations in the past, can help you see trends and influences on your mood that you may not ever have noticed.1
ROBIN BAROOAH and ALEX CARMICHAEL
TO MOVE BEYOND GDP on a personal level, let’s give it a new name: gradual daily progress.
Hacking H(app)iness is not supposed to be an easy fix. It’s a process that begins with a bold declaration to radically examine and optimize the way you think about money, self-worth, and joy in your life. In my case, seeing my Klout score and realizing how others could broadcast data about my life spurred the journey that led to the writing of this book and the founding of the H(app)athon Project. The process hasn’t been easy, but that’s one of the main reasons it’s been so utterly satisfying.
I hope you’ll get to experience an epiphany in your life as I did. A clarifying moment where you’re inspired to make a change and have a sense of direction on how to proceed is a blessing. My epiphany, however, came not too long after my father passed away. While I wasn’t looking for a radical life change, I had been in a state of deep introspection for a number of months dealing with my dad’s death. I was open to receiving the epiphany when it came.
So to be clear: Hacking H(app)iness is not about “finding your happy place” or always being in a positive mood. It’s about giving yourself permission to evaluate what brings you meaning and purpose. You want this process to be hard. You want it to get ugly, at least in terms of honoring a process that is real.
There is honor in seeking truth. I don’t know what yours is. My goal in this chapter is to encourage you by providing some closing examples and stories to help you start exploring.
The Value of Values
Konstantin Augemberg is a statistician with a passion for quantifying his own life. His Measured Me blog and work is an “ongoing personal experiment in self-quantification and self-optimization” with an ultimate goal to “empirically demonstrate that any aspect of my everyday life can be quantified and logged on a regular basis, and that the knowledge from these numbers can be used to help me live better.”2 I interviewed him about his recent Hacking Happiness experiment,3 which Konstantin was kind enough to say was partially inspired by the H(app)athon Project. It focused on analyzing which aspects of his life made him happy and why.
Do you genuinely think people can track their emotions or happiness?
First, it is important to understand the differences between measurement and tracking. Measurement is a process by which a certain construct (latent or tangent) is expressed in terms of numbers or categories. Tracking is a consistent, repetitive measurement of the construct in everyday settings, often “on the go.” You can measure calories burned in the lab setting, in calorimetry labs, in a hermetically sealed room. But if you want to track your calorie expenditure on a regular basis, every day, then tracking devices like BodyMedia would be your best choice.
Likewise, emotions, happiness, and other latent constructs can be measured objectively and numerically. I am not a specialist, but I would say you can detect happiness and emotional states by observing activity of different parts of your brain via a CAT or MRI scanner. However, devices that could enable you to track happiness or emotional states “on the go,” in everyday life settings and relatively continuously, do not exist yet, at least to my knowledge. But you can still measure and track your happiness daily using short self-questionnaires. Even asking simple “How happy am I?” questions once or twice a day can lead to amazing discoveries, provided that you keep track of your answers.
What were the results of your Hacking H(app)iness experiment you were most surprised by? Encouraged by? And can other people replicate what you did and hack happiness?
The most surprising finding was how much living according to my personal values affects my happiness. In addition to recording how happy I am, I was recording how important some life priorities (family, money, career, friends, justice in the world, spiritual balance) were to me at a given point in time and then how satisfied I was with my attempt to live according to these values.
For instance, I would wake up in the morning and ask myself how happy I was. Then I would ask how important it was for me to earn a lot of money, have a successful career, have good relationships with family and my partner. Then I would ask myself how satisfied I was with my current financial situation, my career, and my relationships. Then I would repeat the process in the afternoon and evening. The experiment lasted one month.
Then I looked at the difference between expectations and reality for each of these life priorities and how these gaps were related to my happiness. I thought life priorities like money and career would have a considerable influence on my happiness. As it turns out, they had no impact whatsoever. But being able to express myself, being healthy, and being independent and spiritual were important predictors of my happiness. In other words, every time I felt like it was important for me to be creative and independent but was not able to express myself or act freely, my happiness level would decrease.
Other people can certainly replicate this experiment. I am not sure, however, that they will get similar results. Unlike in regular science, results of self-tracking experiments are not necessarily generalizable; what worked for me won’t necessarily work for you. And that is all right, because that is the main goal of self-tracking and self-quantification: Analyze your own life to find your unique solutions to your own problems. And yes, if a person feels that he is unhappy, then he or she should definitely give “hacking” a try.4
I find Konstantin’s experiment a fascinating example of focusing on currencies that have nothing to do with wealth. The fact that his happiness level decreased when he wasn’t able to express his values is also compelling. While we all have to do things we don’t want to in our lives, tracking our activities and noting their effects can help us prioritize how we want to spend our time.
The Billion People Project
Measuring your own life is a powerful motivator for happiness. Tracking your actions in aggregate with like-minded individuals can also greatly accelerate positive well-being.
The Billion People Project (BPP) is providing this type of opportunity. I interviewed Della and Carrie van Heyst of the Van Heyst Group in Boulder, Colorado, founders of this project, which is aimed at getting people to engage in planet-conscious actions that can minimize and reverse negative effects to the environment. As people get involved and take action, they are measured and broadcast in real time on the project’s website and app. Tracking aggregate action becomes the inspiration for large-scale positive change. “Our goal is to bring together massive amounts of people to help the environment and move the dime on policy,” notes Della.5
The Van Heyst Group is known for the high caliber of events they’ve hosted for more than forty years for clients like Cisco, Fortune magazine, and Equinix. Now they’re leveraging their skills at creating passionate communities to increase people’s happiness while reversing environmental erosion. Inspired to create an “action tank” versus a “think tank,” the mother/daughter pair sense a pivotal shifting point regarding technology and how it can impact genuine human relationships. As Carrie pointed out in our interview:
Tech has taken over too much of our lives. Teens are sitting next to each other and texting versus talking. When we first got exposed to the Internet, all we wanted to know was how we could get more connected to it. Now we’re asking ourselves how we can get more connected to each other again. Can we move toward a happiness- or values-based economy? We need to do a check-in with ourselves and ask: What are our values and how can we express them?6
Having run over four hundred events around the world, the Van Heysts will be able to leverage key relationships with their friends in the tech and business communities to make the Billion People Project a reality. The project differs from other environmental campaigns in regard to its focus on data collection and participant’s personal environmental impact on water, carbon, waste, air, and natural habitats—all leading to sustaining the health and happiness of the individual and the planet.
In the same way that companies are required to have offsets for any potential harm they cause to the environment, with the BPP, individuals can experience the tangible ways their actions hurt or help the earth. Where it may seem impossible to make global change as an individual, the Billion People Project will poignantly show aggregate impact. “My thought was, rather than just sit around, let’s take action into our own hands,” says Della. She continues:
We, the people, can do this. Technology lets us scale our individual actions. And it’s simple stuff—eliminate plastic in your life, change out an old heater. Walk more often than you drive. A lot of people are doing this, but they don’t see the impact of what they’re doing. We’ll aggregate this in an effort to show how we’re all connected as human beings.7
Upworthy and the Third Metric
I mentioned a while back how my father would ask all of his patients if they watched the eleven o’clock news. If they said yes, he would recommend that they stop watching. His point was not to try to keep people from facing reality but to help them shift their focus away from media that present news or information with certain biases. While it would take too long to discuss the nature of objectivity in journalism, it goes without saying, especially in the United States, that the top news stories on most shows focus on negative events. If you watch three local news stations in any market, for instance, you can even see the formula for most shows—two or three top stories typically focusing on generally negative events, followed by a “color piece” near the end of the broadcast highlighting a positive local event—a charity event, a remarkable pet, etc. Most people don’t realize that even if the first few stories are presented in an objective light, the way the pieces are ordered is purposeful, designed to attract and keep viewers watching. While the formula is not necessarily diabolical, it’s important to note how it has affected our overall consciousness, and also why late-night talk shows come immediately after the eleven o’clock news—we need something to laugh at quickly because we’re so distressed by what we’ve just seen.
Upworthy (http://www.upworthy.com) was cofounded by Eli Pariser, whom I interviewed about his book The Filter Bubble. He and his team have done an amazing job of providing a refreshingly real and admittedly biased (toward the positive) framework for sharing stories intended to entertain, empower, and edify. Here’s a bit of language from their “about” page:
We’re a mission-driven media company. We’re not a newspaper—we’d rather speak truth than appear unbiased . . . But we do have a point of view. We’re pro gay marriage, and we’re anti child poverty. We think the media is horrible to women, we think climate change is real, and we think the government has a lot to learn from the Internet about efficiency, disruption, and effectiveness.8
I’m a firm believer that it’s actually easier to be objective with reporting if you admit your biases upfront to your audience. I also believe in basic journalistic standards, such as giving two sides of a story, accurately citing sources, and so on. But it’s the easiest thing in the world to veil your true opinion behind research you feature to prove your point. That’s why I’m boldly telling you with this book that you’re lying to yourself if you think the majority of modern news isn’t weighing you down. While you can’t control what happens in the world, or how it’s reported, you are allowed to decide how and when you want to ingest it. And there’s a difference between avoiding truth and being purposeful about which voices you bring into your life on a daily basis.
Here’s one quick example of why I love the Upworthy site so much—a video by Rebecca Eisenberg9 in response to some “old school, YouTube fat hate” she’d been receiving about her weight. In a little under three minutes she beautifully describes the difference between being fat and all the stigma attached to a person’s size. She’s smart, specific, brave, and bold, and offers an utterly refreshing take on weight issues versus the typical polarized “don’t bully” versus “hater” debates we’ve heard for years. Beyond the fact that I’ve battled with being heavy for years and thereby sympathized with her views, since having the epiphany that launched this book and the H(app)athon Project, I crave and seek raw truth. It’s so much more meaningful and satisfying than overt bias veiled in objectivity or a rampant worldview that has chosen to see the world through a negative lens.
The Third Metric is part of the Huffington Post and you can see it here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/third-metric. The articles featured on this portion of the site are “redefining success beyond money and power” and reflect an overtly Beyond GDP mind-set meant to change the status quo surrounding ideas of how we work, live, and find well-being. As Arianna Huffington pointed out about the site (and the conferences focused on the same issues) in a recent Chicago Tribune article, “The motivation for these events is that it has become increasingly clear that the current model, in which success is equated with overwork, burnout, sleep deprivation and never seeing your family, isn’t working. It’s not working for women. It’s not working for men. It’s not working for companies, for any societies in which it’s dominant or for the planet.”10
There are a number of things I love about this site/conference. First, it honors women. I’m married to a woman and have a daughter and can speak from deep personal experience—women are awesome. It is beyond pitiful and ludicrous that in 2013 there should even be a need for a site/conference dedicated to women but sadly it’s more needed than ever. However, what I appreciate about the site is its how-to focus regarding proactive ways to lower your stress or simply identify the paradigm of incessant productivity most of us feel equates to being successful. The Huffington Post also features an app/site called GPS for the Soul (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gps-for-the-soul/) that provides similar proactive ways to measure and combat stress. The app even lets you measure your pulse by placing your finger on the lens of your mobile phone camera. After you get your pulse, you can see the videos or articles available on the site or create your own slide show from personal pictures to actively calm yourself down.
The Paradigm of Being Proactive
These are just a few samples of sites and voices designed to help you reorient your daily perspective on how positivity can actually be crafted in your life. You’re allowed to reflect on what truly brings you meaning, and also understand how deeply your worth doesn’t have to be focused on your wealth or outward image and influence.
This whole section of Hacking H(app)iness is about being proactive—promoting personal and public well-being versus just getting money and accumulating influence as a primary objective for your life. If, to quote Avner Offer, “the currency of well-being is attention,” we all have to get better at spending time looking more deeply at ourselves while also regarding others and their needs as important as our own.