Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Happiness Runs in a Circular Motion?

This is a repost of the latest article I wrote for Forbes on the trend of tracking your emotions.

The ability to quantify many areas of our lives has led to the emergence of a new trend – the trend of tracking your emotions, specifically happiness. These apps allow people to track their emotions much like they would track fitness, calories or spending. But, can this focus on tracking happiness actually undermine us, especially in our career or business successes?

The idea of quantifying our activities using technological tools is not new. Many of us use apps like Nike+ or RunKeeper to track our runs, calorie counters such as Meal Snap to track our caloric intake, and financial tools like Mint to track our spending.

Launched in 2009, Track Your Happiness is a mobile research project that allows users to track their happiness and find out what factors – for them personally – are associated with greater happiness. According to data from the app: “46.9% of people's time is spent thinking on something other than what they're doing. In fact, what activity a person was engaged in only accounted for about 5% of a person's happiness, whereas whether that person's mind was on- or off-task accounted for over 10%.” So, in other words, a wandering mind is an “unhappy one.” Some apps are taking this idea even further and are looking at the idea of happiness through a person’s social network. Happstr is a mobile app that allows users to mark geographical locations where they’re feeling happy, and to see others' "happiness spots" on the map. It’s purpose is to get users to focus on and record the best moments of their lives. It enables them to benefit from the well-being of others by sharing that happiness with their social network. The app is based on research that shows a person’s happiness can be easily elevated by the network effect of happy people near you.

While the idea of sharing and recording personal happiness is interesting, these apps are problematic since they lead to counterfactual thinking. Happiness, like all emotions ebbs and flows. It can depend on any number of factors such as whom you were with, when you were there, and even the weather. Additionally, by tracking your happiness, it causes you to always be looking backward through rose-colored glasses rather than staying in the present.

As noted in a 1995 study, “When less is more: Counterfactual thinking and satisfaction among Olympic medalists,” published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: "People's emotional responses to events are influenced by their thoughts about 'what might have been.' The authors extend these findings by documenting a familiar occasion in which those who are objectively better off nonetheless feel worse."

Apps like these drive us to compare ourselves and our emotional state with others, causing us to focus on what we don’t have rather than what we do have. It undermines our successes.

Interestingly, this applies across the board. Successful business leaders as well as Olympic winners even fall prey to this. For example, the same study found third place Olympic winners are sometimes even happier than second place because the "silver medals winners did upward comparisons to the gold medal winner, while the bronze medalists did downward comparisons to people who didn't win medals." And, this is evidence among business leaders in competitive fields as well. According to Jena McGregor’s Washington Post article, “The psychology of how Olympic gold, silver and bronze can go to your head,” “Leaders in competitive fields are always comparing themselves to those who came in first, when they might enjoy their success a little more if they learned to compare themselves to those who didn’t come close to winning at all."

This trend of tracking our emotional states leads us to focus backward rather than forward. To quote Daniel Gilbert, one of the creators of the Track Your Happiness Project, in his book, Stumbling on Happiness: “The fact that we often judge the pleasure of an experience by its ending can cause us to make some curious choices.” Happiness is a raw, human emotion—not something that can be tracked like calories and purchases.  Much like a mood ring one might find at a toy store, such apps shouldn’t be taken seriously. The very thought of it makes me sad.


E.Han said...

Sad indeed! Your post made me think of this Ted Talk. Enjoy~

E.Han said...
This comment has been removed by the author.