Tracking Happiness – Changing My Life One Data Point at a Time

Read Time: 15 Minutes

I conduct two-week experiments all the time to try and push myself into learning new things. I call these short-term experiments “sprints”, a term borrowed from a framework called “Scrum”, which is extremely useful and I will talk about in an upcoming post.

Basically, at the end of every sprint, I take some time to consider the effectiveness of the experiment, make changes, and think about whether or not it’s worth continuing the experiment. This time, I decided to try something relatively new to me.

How the Experiment Began

I was on Reddit when I came across a unique blog. Its title was “Tracking Happiness”, and it caught my attention because I had been in a rough spot at the time and had been thinking about the concept of happiness and trying to figure out certain aspects of my life.

The author was describing his life in great detail, and had graphs and correlations that very clearly indicated his levels of happiness over certain periods of time. He was quite literally, tracking happiness and analysing it in a precise, methodical manner.

My interest piqued, I decided to learn more about his methods and why he was doing this. There’s an interesting backstory on his blog, which I urge you to check out. He’s been doing this for three and a half years now, and he’s meticulously recorded and tracked his happiness levels every single day.

The idea behind it was to figure out what made him happy, and just as important, what didn’t. This way, he could focus more on the things that increased happiness levels, and avoid the things that had a negative impact on those levels.

I found this very interesting and began to track my own happiness levels for two weeks, just as an experiment. I wasn’t sure if I would be committed enough to do it on a continuous basis, so I thought I’d start small, but I’ve now passed day 50 and have no plans to stop.

What I Learned

Alright guys, this is a pretty long section, so bear with me on this.

Now that I have some useful data to look at, I decided to share what I’ve learned from this experience with you.

I have to say, I wasn’t sure what to expect at first, but it was eye-opening after just a few days of consistent tracking. I started to notice little things that negatively affected my happiness and wellbeing. The worst part? I was allowing these things to happen, unaware that I could take control.

Over time, I started noticing trends and realised that I would have to make changes if my happiness levels were constantly low for more than a couple of days. Whenever this happened, I would reflect on my situation and attempt to figure out what was causing the issue. It’s important to do this because each day builds on the next.

To quote Redditor JHawkeye143 who has been tracking happiness for a year now, “Life is incremental, but compounding. While our experience of life is discrete due to sleeping everyday and our consciousness not being continuous, our perception of this experience is a collective of these incremental conscious periods. There is no such thing as “resetting” overnight. Changing your life requires time and effort, but it pays dividends.”

Your experiences make you who you are, and by that same logic, each day of happiness (or lack thereof) affects the next, even if it is in some minor way. If I was unhappy on one day, I would try and figure out the reason behind it. Once I did that, I would work on it, and hopefully fix the problem, so I could work on raising my happiness levels the following day.

This actually reminded me of Steve Job’s famous Stanford Commencement speech. If you haven’t watched it, definitely do, but I’ve highlighted the exact section I was thinking about just below the video.

 

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like, “If you live each day as if it were your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”

It made an impression on me… and since then, for the past 33 years I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I’m about to do today.”

And whenever the answer has been, “no” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

– Steve Jobs

This was similar to what I was describing before. If my happiness levels were low for a few days in a row, it was a sure sign that something needed to change.

Tracking my happiness levels reminded me to be more mindful in general, because I received two alerts a day on my phone which would ask me to key in how I felt and asked me for a short summary of why I felt that way. This has become my version of journaling, and it takes less than a minute.

I actually found that I can better deal with my negative emotions once I write down how I’m feeling in the app. I’m not sure why, but I think the physical act of putting your emotions into words actually has a powerful impact on allowing your mind to process the issues, rather than shoving it into a dark corner, only for it to blow up at a later date.

There’s an episode on Joe Rogan’s podcast in which psychologist Jordan Peterson discusses something similar (I strongly recommend listening to all the episodes involving him, they’re absolutely thought-provoking and enlightening).

If you check out the video below, skip over to about 6:50, which is when he starts talking about dealing with the weight of emotions by writing about them, and 12:00 is where he describes how the psychological process works. Although Peterson is talking about a much longer timeframe, I think it has the same effect when you’re doing it for day-to-day issues.

On the flip side, I also have a greater appreciation for the good things that have happened throughout the day. It’s amazing how much we can take for granted, and we tend to have the habit of only remembering the bad stuff that’s happened. It’s so important to consider and be grateful for the good things as well, because when you do that, it can actually raise your happiness levels. A lot of people find “positivity-talk” to be positively nauseating, but it can help.

Once I started tracking my happiness, the app I was using would create a little graph for me, indicating my happiness levels over the past week. The visual effect of seeing bad times pass and good times coming around again has had a powerful impact on me. Nowadays, when I’m having a particularly bad day, I am a lot less depressed than I used to be, because I am constantly reminded that it’s a temporary situation, and it will always pass, eventually.

The other benefit of tracking my happiness was that I started changing my habits and actions. I became far more proactive in terms of making myself feel happier. For instance, I started working out a lot more, and because I’m tracking it, I’m far more consistent. Like Peter Drucker said, “what gets measured gets managed”.

Tracking my happiness also involves me making quick notes about what I did during the day. If I noticed that I hadn’t worked out in two days, I would push myself to hit the gym the very next day.

The added benefit or working out a lot more is that it has also improved my mood and my ability to manage my emotional state. I strongly believe that working out can affect your mental state far more than you would expect.

Tracking my happiness has had a tremendous impact on how I’m living my life. I’ve started becoming more productive and I’m noticeably happier, and I’m constantly making better decisions to improve my wellbeing. If you’ve never done this before, do consider giving it a go.

The only potential drawback that I found was that rating your happiness is a very subjective affair. You have to be honest with yourself and you need to take into account the entire day, and not allow yourself to only think about how you are feeling in the moment of making the rating.

Redditors Weigh In

When I decided to start this two-week experiment, I decided to go on Reddit and invite others to join me, and I actually had the opportunity to interview a number of Redditors after they had completed the experiment, and I asked them about their experience. The responses highlight some important points that I think will help you if you decide to try the experiment yourself.


JHawkeye143

Have you noticed any improvement in your happiness levels since you started tracking it? Why do you think that is?

My life has changed drastically since beginning this process. I have changed jobs and moved to a new state almost directly because of tracking my life. After realizing how unhappy I was, it was simply determining why and working towards resolving that. For me, it spurned from being unhappy with my job and station in life so I worked to change that.

Are there any drawbacks to tracking happiness that you can think of?

If you discover that you are unhappy, it becomes a daily reminder. In my experience the process of reminding myself of how unhappy I was became a chore and seemed to exacerbate my condition. I think its crucial to be proactive and decide to take action to change your situation in this scenario, or you risk a serious cycle of rumination.

Would you recommend tracking happiness to others, and if so, why?

Most definitely. This has been the most influential thing for my state of mind since graduating college. In a world where we seem to be becoming more concerned with tracking our physical fitness and health, I find it equally (if not more so) important to maintain our mental and emotional health. The first step to proper maintenance of anything tracking its progression and diagnosing causes for outcomes.

My personal logger consists of an hourly activity tracking gant chart, a journal tab, and a happiness tab. The happiness tab is fairly simply: good day, meh day, bad day. I’m a fairly resilient person, and have a hard time qualifying something as a bad day (this was my reassurance to myself that I do not have clinical depression) but through June of this year I was about even split or leaning towards mostly “meh” days versus good days.

This was my tip that I was in a situational depression and something needed to change. If you don’t consider yourself to be extremely happy, I recommend you track your life and find causes for your unhappiness so you can change them. We experience this life day to day, but we can observe these things and change our lives for the better with a little bit of effort.


wtfudgery

Would you recommend tracking happiness to others, and if so, why?

Without a doubt!!! From what I have experienced, gratitude and happiness go hand in hand. If I am miserable, then I’m probably taking parts of my life for granted. If I’m happy then I’m focusing on the right areas of my life. Also, I don’t think anyone enjoys being [un]happy. If I notice a trend in bad days, I have to figure out where the problem lies and work on it. Is it my depression creeping up? Is it the people I associate with? Is it the situations I have put myself in?


I also had the chance to ask the same questions to the author of the Tracking Happiness blog himself, and he had some fascinating points to make. Here’s the complete interview:

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from tracking your happiness?

Tracking my happiness has been great for many reasons. The one that sticks out the most is that it allows me to rationally reflect on every kind of period in my life.

Humans are sometimes pretty poor in judging the value of certain events, especially when emotions are involved. By tracking my happiness and the factors that have influenced it, I know exactly what influenced my life at the time.

I’ve learned to use this data to steer my life in the best direction possible. I’m not saying that I’ve turned my life around with a complete lifestyle change, but I have been able to make the best and reasonable decisions possible based on my newfound knowledge. In short, I now know what’s best for me. And I can use that every day to get the most out of my life.

Have you noticed any improvement in your happiness levels since you started tracking it? Why do you think that is?

It’s hard to measure the exact effect of my decisions, since I don’t know what my life would have looked like had I made different decisions in the past. That said, I am currently very happy, and I’d like to think that’s a result of my informed decisions.

For example, my relationship has been conflicted many times – primarely during long distance periods – and we have discussed the topic of a breakup several times. However, we both knew that our relationship was great, and made both our lives happier. So we both decided to fight for what we had. Our relationship is currently as good as it gets, and we’re very happy to have made the decision to stick together, through thick and thin.

Another good example I always refer to is arguably my biggest passion: running. Running is a difficult sport, and a lot of people would probably agree with me. Running takes discipline and endurance. When it’s raining or cold, it’s not always easy to get dressed and step outside. But tracking happiness has learned me one thing: running always makes me a happier and better person in the long run (pun intented ;-)). After a run – no matter how I initially felt – I always feel better. Ever since I started tracking happiness, I have been running a LOT more. I’ve since ran 4 marathons, and continue to run through wind, rain and snow, knowing that it will eventually make me a happier and better person.

Do you think you will continue to track your happiness after the two week experiment?

[I] have been doing it since December, 2013 and still going strong! I plan on doing this for the rest of my life, and want to inspire people out there to do the same! Tracking happiness becomes more and more valuable as you grow older and your life changes and transforms into something else. We need to be able to steer our life in the best direction possible, and by tracking our happiness, we will know exactly what it is that makes us happy.

Do you feel that you were being objective when you were rating your happiness (did you take into account all the factors or just how you felt during that moment, etc)?

This is a difficult and critical question. It is a fact that we are humans and are influenced by emotions, biases and flawed decision making processes. I will never argue that. We are not robots, it’s that simple.

However, tracking happiness is about rationally quantifying a feeling of happiness. This surely must sound very hard, considering what I’ve just said about biases and flawed decision making processes.

But the key here is consistency. As long as you are consistent in using the same scale and method of rating happiness, your data will eventually become valuable.

It doesn’t matter if I rate my day with an 8, while you rate the exact same day with a 6 (hypothetically speaking). As long as the relative difference between happiness ratings remains consistent.

I rate my happiness based on how I feel at the end of every day. I try to include the entire day within this single happiness rating. Of course, I would be naive to think that every single happiness rating is a perfect judgement and totally un-biased without forgetting about certain emotions I’ve had during the day. Again, we are not robots.

Consistency and continuity are very important here. As long as you keep it up, your data will eventually become more valuable and reliable.

Are there any drawbacks to tracking happiness that you can think of?

No! 🙂

Would you recommend tracking happiness to others, and if so, why?

I like to imagine a world in which every single person is trying to be as happy as possible, without being influenced by external limitations, such as cultural expectations, peer pressure or jealousy.

We are all different, which means that we all have different reasons to be happy. We all have different happiness factors. But we should all pursue the same goal, and that is to live the most long and happy life as possible.


Some Tips on Tracking Your Happiness

If you’re the kind of person who is interested in the idea of having a structure to your day, morning routines, journaling, etc., you’ll probably find this to be quite beneficial to add to your routine!

In my opinion, I think there are a couple of things you can do to improve the benefit of tracking your happiness, and to increase the accuracy of your ratings.

  1. Track your happiness levels at the same times every day
  2. Think about how you felt when you woke up, and the progression throughout the day
  3. Journaling can be an excellent companion tool to this, and you can look back and see exactly what was making you happy or unhappy on a particular day. This is particularly helpful when looking at trends and deciding to make changes.
  4. Make it easy and convenient. If it’s too detailed or time consuming, you may eventually give up. You can always build up to a more detailed record.
  5. Start with the two-week experiment and stick to it. The data is only useful if you can spot trends.

If you want to know exactly how to track your happiness, head over to the “Method” section of the Tracking Happiness blog for a concise description of what to do.

Before ending this post, I’d like to acknowledge that happiness itself is extremely subjective, and some say that it isn’t the final goal or the most important aspect of life for human beings. It turns into a philosophical debate with no real answer as of yet. If you’d like to weigh in on this, please leave your thoughts in the comments! Personally, I think happiness is elusive if you chase it, and perhaps counterintuitively, you need to stop searching for happiness in order to find it.

Now I know that seems very contradictory to the entire post, but I think that tracking happiness and actively chasing it are two different things. There’s nothing wrong with trying to improve yourself and figuring out what brings you enjoyment, so you can focus on those things. Again, it’s subjective, and everyone looks at this differently. Try it out, and let me know what you think!

Author: Sanjay Sudhakaran

I'm an aspiring multipotentialite or polymath: I intend to learn programming, French, become a professional guitarist, read at least 10 books this year, travel to 10 countries within the next two, and work on my own business. In the process, I plan to share my journey and everything I've learned on thepolymathideal.com!

4 thoughts

  1. Another well investigated post Sanjay!
    Chasing happiness or a goal to be more is in itself a negative experience, I believe that our environment affects us but not so much as we affect our environment. With depersonalisation disorder people are more influenced by there environment emotionally especially when they have association episodes, some of these people literally cannot interact with the environment they’re placed in and have to leave or usually disappear for hours, weeks even.
    As someone who is short on time I feel that happiness is not getting what you want, happiness is gained from your journey, you don’t acknowledge what people want you to do/make you do, you become more autonomous as a being selecting what they believe is beneficial for themselves and in some kind hearts beneficial for the environment around they to create a rippling positivity effect.
    Happiness can be achieved by preventing on helping someone through a tradgey you have been through. Sharing a challenging experience to help grow someone else can give you something to look at and smile about.
    Happiness is acceptance.
    Acceptance is knowing who you are and what you stand for.

    Like

  2. This is absolutely amazing, Sanjay. Fucking hell, I feel so honoured to have inspired you to start tracking happiness.

    The idea of 2 week sprints is so good. It allows you to dip your toes in the water, and to test what works and what doesn’t. Tracking happiness can be done via many methods. The goals are the same. You perfectly rephrased it: what gets tracked gets managed!

    I hope you are having a great week. All the best!

    Like

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