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Harvard Research App Uses Texts to Track Happiness

Published on March 9, 2017

Square, teal-colored emoji face with a huge white smile and tiny squinting eyes

Track Your Happiness is a free iPhone app developed at Harvard as “a scientific research project that investigates what makes life worth living.” The idea, according to the App Store description, “is that by measuring your experience at many individual moments, you’ll get an accurate picture of your life and the determinants of your happiness.”

Once you get Track Your Happiness installed and take a brief survey, you’re all set for some life-picture painting. The app will start sending you periodic text messages and/or emails—how often and when are up to you—with links to questions about what’s happening, where you are, and how you’re feeling.

After every 50 responses, the app generates a Happiness Report about how everyday life experiences are related to your happiness levels. Here’s a sample report showing a user’s happiness based on location:

iPhone screen with location report from the Track Your Happiness app

Each of those little dots represents an answer. You can see that as you answer questions, a picture starts to emerge. Of course, this process can take some time depending on your notification settings. Selecting the default of 3 samples per day, for example, would require well over two weeks to get that magic 50.

Not an iPhone user? No problem, you can still participate! Track Your Happiness has a web application where you can take your survey, set up notification preferences, and view reports. You’ll still get texts or emails directing you to take surveys. Same research, different interface.

Speaking of research, let’s jump back in time to the late aughts and talk a bit more about that project:

Studying Happiness

Profile shot of man with beard

That man up there is Harvard psychologist and happiness researcher Dr. Matthew Killingsworth. While still a Ph.D. candidate in 2009, Matt built Track Your Happiness for a study he was conducting with his mentor, psychology prof and Stumbling on Happiness bestselling author Daniel Gilbert.

The purpose of the study was to investigate the impact of a wandering mind on happiness. Walk your way back through history and you’ll see that people have long suggested the key to happiness is living in the moment. But what might science have to say?

To find out, Matt needed to gather real-time data from a large number of people about their activities, how they felt, and, most importantly, whether or not their minds were wandering. The data had to be as close as possible to real-time, too, because our brains have this pesky habit of making us misremember our actual experiences.

The most reliable way to get real-time emotional data is a method called experience sampling. However, experience sampling tends to be expensive and really hard to implement, even when you’re not talking the enormous sample sizes Matt wanted.

Track Your Happiness solved that problem. The app was free to download, easy to set up, and tied to a handy mobile device that people carry everywhere and love to interact with—the perfect tool for the project.

Matt used the app to send automatic emails and text messages and collect ~250,000 experience samples from ~5,000 people in 83 countries, representing ages 18-88 and all 86 major occupational categories. Up till then, nobody had been able to study how mind-wandering affected happiness with such a large sample. The app made it happen.

Results

Killingsworth and Gilbert eventually published their findings in a 2010 paper called (spoiler alert) “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind.” Here were the two main takeaways:

  1. People are thinking about what is not happening almost as often as they are thinking about what is
  2. Mind-wandering typically makes people unhappy

Matt went on to present a 2011 TEDxCambridge Talk on the pair’s research. This is the chart he shared showing how happiness falls to a wandering mind:

Bar chart showing happiness level as related to mind-wandering state, with present-focused minds much happier

Expanding on that a bit, he noted that a mind wandering into unpleasant territory is typically less happy than a mind wandering neutrally. And a mind wandering through pleasantries—a state sometimes distinguished as restorative daydreaming—is typically just as happy as a focused mind.

Still, we have science and mobile technology to thank for the evidence that mind-wandering is a cause, not a consequence, of unhappiness. And Track Your Happiness is still faithfully sending out texts and emails to a growing audience—the most recent figure we could dig up was 35,000, from 2014.

The app’s creator concluded his TEDx Talk in anticipation of the future of happiness research:

“My hope is that over time, by tracking people’s moment-to-moment happiness and their experiences in daily life, we’ll be able to uncover a lot of important causes of happiness. And that in the end, the scientific understanding of happiness will help us create a future that’s not only richer and healthier, but happier as well.”

Looks like we’re off to a pretty good start. If you like the sound of Track Your Happiness, why not give it a try and see what you can learn about yourself?

Links: iPhone app, web app.


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