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Tracking Happiness

August 27, 2012

Judy Abel,

The ability to quantify the many areas of our lives has led to the emergence of a new trend in technology: tracking our emotions. These apps enable people totrack their emotions much like they would follow their goals for fitness, calorie intake or spending. However, 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+ orRunKeeper to track our miles run, calorie counters such as Meal Snapto record our caloric intake, and financial tools like Mint to follow our spending.

Launched in 2009, Track Your Happiness is a mobile research project that enables 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 lets users mark geographical locations where they’re feeling happy, and to see others’ “happiness spots” on the map. Its 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 him or her.

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, the app can cause you to continually 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 thinking applies across the board. Successful business leaders as well as Olympic winners even fall prey. For example, the same study found third-place Olympic medalists 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.” In addition, such evidence exists 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,” she writes: “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,” he writes: “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.

Judy Abel is a Senior Strategist at gyro.


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