Happiness – where does it come from ?

People have been debating the causes of happiness for thousands of years. Even though objective living conditions in most developed countries have improved tremendously over the past few decades, we do not seem to have gotten any happier. No wonder that the notion of happiness itself has become the focal point of an increasing number of research projects.

One of the puzzles in connection with scientific research is that demographic factors such as income, education, gender or marital status do not seem to be of paramount importance. So what causes us to be happy?

Happiness App

Harvard researcher Matt Killingsworth has a potential answer. He argues that happiness has a lot to do with our moment-to-moment experiences. How we are going about our lives, what we are doing, who we are with, what we are thinking about – these all play a significant role and influence us heavily; yet these are the very factors that are almost impossible for scientists to study.

Mr. Killingsworth has come up with an app to help science out. Trackyourhappiness.org uses iPhones to monitor people’s happiness in real time. Users are sent signals at random points throughout the day when they are asked about their moment-to-moment experiences in the instance just before the signal.

The data collected through this project includes over 650,000 real-time reports from over 80 countries by over 15,000 people of various ages, income levels, education and marital statuses.


People have an amazing ability to focus on something that is OTHER THAN the present moment. When our mind wanders it is unconstrained. This allows us to learn, plan and reason in a way that no other species can. Yet the relation between the use of this ability and our happiness is unclear.

Those participating in Mr. Killingsworth’s project were asked three questions. On a scale ranging from very bad to very good,

— they were asked what activity they were engaged in;

— they had to rate how they felt at the time of the signal;

— then they had to comment on whether they were thinking about being engaged in something else, and whether this other activity was pleasant, neutral or unpleasant.

As it turned out, people were substantially less happy when their mind was wandering.

Surprisingly, this was true for all kinds of activities, even less enjoyable ones. For instance, even though commuting is not one of the most popular activities, people turned out to be essentially happier when they were focusing on their commute rather than thinking about the future or reliving a past event.

Even when thinking pleasant thoughts, people were less happy compared to those who managed to stay in the present.

Negativity bias

How could this happen? The nature of our thoughts could be part of the explanation of this surprising evidence. Rather than focusing on the positive events in our lives, we tend to be more concerned about our worries, anxieties and regrets. This is called “negativity bias”.

Slipping into autopilot

Now you may wonder how often we let our mind run on autopilot? According to evidence in Mr. Killingsworth’s research project, an awful lot (generally 47% of the time).

No matter what they were doing, the people involved in the research were mentally elsewhere at least 30% of the time. The frequency of thoughts unrelated to the actual events was studied across 22 activities. The highest score (around 65%) was measured during routine activities (taking a shower, brushing teeth) and the lowest (10%) when they were having sex. This suggests that mind-wandering is ubiquitous and pervades basically everything we do.

So what is the key take-away from this research?

In terms of how happy you are, it is way less important WHAT you are doing vs. HOW FOCUSED you are doing it.

Track Your Happiness was created as part of Matt Killingsworth’s doctoral research at Harvard University. This research is approved by the Harvard University Committee for the Use of Human Subjects. Find out more at: Track Your Happiness

Article based on: TED Talk by Matt Killingsworth: Want to be happier? Stay in the moment https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qy5A8dVYU3k