What makes us happy? For centuries, people have been trying to understand the source of this erratic, fleeting, yet most desirable condition of human existence. The quest for happiness is so central to our lives, so deeply rooted in civilization, it is nearly instinctual. How to be happy is the fundamental question of the ages, and the answer lies somewhere deep in our collective consciousness.
Uncovering the secret to being happy has been the focus of a comprehensive, 75-year scientific research project at Harvard University. The Harvard Study of Adult Development (a.k.a. the Harvard Happiness Study) is the longest running study of its kind, mining data from every echelon of society, analyzing thousands of interpersonal relationships, as well as assessing subjects’ physical and emotional well-being.
In 2003, Harvard psychiatrist Robert Waldinger became the fourth director of the Grant Study. Recognizing the potential benefits of combining technology with mental health, Waldinger expanded the scope of his research to include computer and smartphone applications. He did a TED Talk outlining his ideas and invited the world—or anyone with access to a smartphone—to participate.
Three times a day I got a notification on my phone with a banner that read: How do you feel? The goal was to open the app and take a brief survey as close to receiving the alert as possible. The survey asked things like: What are you doing? Who are you with? Where are you? Are you suffering from any physical ailments? Do you work? If so, how many hours? How much sleep did you get last night? Did you struggle with bills last month? Who do you live with? How many times have you checked Facebook today? And so on. The questions ranged from simple to complex, and they always varied. Clearly, the objective was to find correlations between circumstances and happiness.
Every six months, TrackYourHappiness.org sent me a compilation and analysis of my surveys in an aptly named “Happiness Report.” Not surprising, I was happiest when I was with my family or friends doing something interactive. I felt best after exercising and getting adequate sleep, and I enjoyed being busy—but not too busy.
I was least happy after spending a lot of time on Facebook, I felt anxious being at home with nothing to do, and eating junk food affected my mood. The reports weren’t particularly revelatory in and of themselves, except they indicated a steady increase in my overall happiness.
In the two years since I started using TrackYourHappiness, I became happier—and I don’t mean just statistically; it wasn’t just the reports. Overall, I was more grateful, I felt better connected to friends and family, I felt less stressed, and I was in a better mood. It was as if the app taught me how to be happier.
My results, it turns out, were as much a reflection of being mindful as they were parallel to any certain behavior, and they were not unique. Participants across the board recorded elevated dispositions, independent of environment or conditions. In other words, simply paying attention to happiness makes one happier. The surveys, which came at random times during the day, were like gentle subliminal reminders, influencing the way we perceived our lives.
After two years, the app stopped working on my phone, and, I took it as a sign that TrackYourHappiness’ work with me was complete. Deleting the cute frog-looking icon from my screen was much like when Mary Poppins left the Banks family: She said goodbye after imparting her valuable wisdom. I had learned the secret to happiness—what more could I ask for?
As far as I know, the study is ongoing and always accepts participants. If you have the inclination, I highly recommend it. Find it on iTunes, in the app store, or at TrackYourHappiness.org.