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Why you should track your happiness

tracking happiness on graph

Can you honestly say that you know the most important factors in your happiness? Until I started tracking my daily happiness, I definitely couldn’t. But I’ve come to believe that putting a number on how happy you are on each given day can make a significant positive difference to your life. Here’s why you should track your happiness.

It makes you more likely to manage your happiness

We’ve all heard the saying that ‘what gets measured gets managed’, often attributed (probably wrongly) to management consultant Peter Drucker. That saying gets a bad wrap because of all the instances of targets leading to perverse incentives. The classic example is the British government offering a bounty for every dead cobra in Delhi, to try to reduce the population. The policy resulted in greater cobra numbers as people started breeding them to get the reward.

But your happiness is the exception that proves the rule. Whereas most other things we’re trying to get in life are instrumental goods, happiness is an intrinsic good. In other words, it’s always better to be happier, whereas more of some other things – like fame, money, and food – can sometimes have negative consequences.

Track the right kind of happiness

The one condition here is that we’re talking about ‘substantive’ happiness, rather than merely fleeting good sensations or pleasure, like the kind you get from taking drugs or eating tasty but unhealthy food. If in theory you could experience those things constantly, like in the philosopher Robert Nozick’s experience machine, that might be better than normal life1 – but in the real world, that’s not possible.

In practice, whilst pleasure is an important component of happiness, chasing more and more of it can make you worse off, at least in the long run. So the thing we should be managing needs to be some combination of pleasurable experiences, but also the satisfaction we get on reflection 2.

Tracking this over time makes us more likely to think about and manage it. For example, I’ve noticed that since I started writing, I’ve been more satisfied, even if in the moment I find it difficult. That has given me reason to keep doing what I’m doing, rather than quitting on a particularly tough day.

It helps you appreciate different types of happiness

Related to the above point is that tracking your happiness actually helps you to notice the difference between pleasure and overall happiness. Through tracking my happiness, I’ve noticed that the big, ‘exciting’ things aren’t actually giving me the return on investment that I seek. That’s because they’re often trading a short, intense chunk of pleasure for a longer period of low-level displeasure.

A good example is a night out drinking. I do have enjoyable periods in the night where I’m lost in the music and dancing, or where I’m in a good conversation with friends. But there are also big costs.

I have always noticed the financial costs in terms of what I could have otherwise spent the money on, as well as guilt for not donating it to charity. But tracking my happiness has shown me that the day after a night out, I tend to be a point or so lower on my 7-point scale, even if I don’t have a bad ‘hangover’. This is probably due to tiredness and low-level anxiety prompted by the alcohol and (related) lack of sleep. I am also less productive following a night out, which in turn makes me less happy.

Mixing different types of happiness

I wouldn’t want to stop these nights out altogether. I look forward to them, and they sometimes deliver great memories that bring a low level of happiness for a long time, as well as momentary pleasure. We need a mix of shorter-term pleasure and longer-term satisfaction. But I intend to have fewer, and avoid doing multiple nights out in a row, where the negatives seem to compound.

Conversely, a day of working hard usually results in quite a high happiness score, even though not much of the day could be described as ‘pleasurable’. This has been useful in giving me added motivation during periods of work.

You get some surprising results

The potential downside of chasing short-term pleasure is something I’ve ‘known’ for a while but that I’ve not always followed. But tracking your happiness can also bring surprising results. For example, I’ve found that spending time with people I don’t like is hugely negative for me. There is some evidence that spending time talking to people – even if you don’t know them – is good for your wellbeing. So I’d operated on the basis that socialising was good, even if I wasn’t sure I liked that person.

I’ve since noticed that some of my unhappiest days are where I’ve spent significant amounts of time with people that I don’t like. I am now taking steps to avoid those people in particular, as well as thinking more about what I like in other people and how I can find that more.

Even if you’re not surprised, it’s good to have the evidence

Seeing things in black and white (or especially in numbers) often gives you a prompt to do something about it. Having a vague idea isn’t as powerful.

It helps you get off the hedonic treadmill

After a while of tracking your happiness, you’ll probably notice that it’s pretty stable, despite changes in circumstances. This is because we humans hedonically adapt. Even if circumstances change that make things much better or much worse, we tend to quickly revert back to our mean level of happiness. This was borne out in a 1978 study, which found that people who won the lottery did not become much happier, and that accident victims did not become much less so, after a period of adjustment.

Seeing this play out in numbers helps reinforce the message. It helps you be calm in the face of adversity, and stop worrying so much about reaching a goal you’ve told yourself is important. That’s not to say we can’t do things to increase our happiness, but that it’s unlikely to come through one big, sudden change in our lives.

It reminds you to focus on the journey

Tracking your happiness reminds you that happiness is not a state that you reach, but something you experience all the time. You come to see that while things may improve over time, that doesn’t stop you having bad days. Moving to a better house might make you marginally better off in the long term, but it won’t stop you occasionally having a 2/7 day.

This encourages you to focus on the things you can do to maintain your happiness each day, rather than think it’s something you should sacrifice now for a future utopia. A holiday where you’re blissfully happy for a week isn’t going to make up for months of miserable days working to pay for it.

It can help reduce FOMO

It was easy during the pandemic to focus on the things we lost. And for those who lost things they couldn’t get back, it will have been awful. For me, luckily, the good routines I was able to get into without the busyness of life getting in the way were really positive, and made up for some of the missing out. This has suggested to me that I do a lot of activities for fear of missing out, rather than because they bring me happiness.

Extreme negatives are easier to avoid than extreme positives are to make

I find that my median happiness is higher than my mean. Most days are positively happy, but some days are awful. Truly euphoric days are harder to come by. This has made me focus more on the things I can do to avoid bad days, rather than to create good ones. As mentioned before, I’m avoiding some people more, and I’m trying less hard to create amazing nights out.

You’re less likely to romanticise things that weren’t good

Having an incorrect view of the past can cloud the judgements we make in the present. This is less likely to happen if we can go back and look at evidence, such as our historic happiness scores. For example, you might look back on a former relationship with rose-tinted glasses, but going back through the data will show you it wasn’t good for you. This will make you less likely to get into something similar again.

It’s a daily reminder of what’s important

Actually having to take a minute to consider what score you’re giving each day is a useful reminder of what’s important. Particularly if you combine it with journalling, it can be helpful in noticing the good things in life, and recognising the bad things you can fix.

It’s quick, easy and free

Some things that make us happier take loads of work, like exercise and healthy eating. Tracking your happiness is much quicker, needs little willpower, and can be done for free. There are loads of free apps to help you, but you can also create your own spreadsheet. And you don’t need to make it 100% accurate to get lots of value from it.

So why not make a start on tracking your happiness now – you might make yourself a little bit happier.

Footnotes

  1. It’s a contested area of philosophy, if you’re interested in delving in!
  2. There are whole fields of study into what happiness is. I can’t do justice to those here, but suffice it to say that what we should be tracking is a general happiness that can be sustained over time.