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Just knowing how happy you are could make you happier

For most people precisely answering the question of how happy they were six months ago would be a difficult task. You could probably give a ballpark estimate but given the passage of time the level of precision would likely be shaky. Or similarly, if you were asked to describe in detail the peaks and troughs of how happy you were across a year, and exactly what was driving these trends, you could probably pick out highlights or lowlights but I imagine the detail would be lacking. This is not just an assumption, there is good evidence to show that we find it hard to recall our emotions with a high degree of accuracy and that we tend to retrospectively over or under-estimate how we were feeling at the time (see Barnett, 1997 or Diener & Thomas, 1990).

Now of course the natural follow up question is, why does it matter if we aren't able to recall our emotions with a high degree of accuracy? It matters because the power of information drives how decisions are made. We know that with perfect information individuals will take the correct decision 100% of the time. Perfect information means the decision maker knows all of the information necessary in order to make a decision, without the doubt that they could be choosing a sub-optimal option. That is, based on all of the information you could possibly obtain at that given moment. Of course, with hindsight the decision may prove to be sub-optimal after all. We are less concerned with this though because it is beyond our control. Our goal is to optimise our decision making in the present moment. One way to do this is to improve the information that we have available to us. We look to do this because unfortunately in most circumstances we don’t have perfect information available to us when taking a decision. The world is murky and we often need to take educated judgements based on the balance of probabilities.

By tracking how happy you are over time, and even better, trying to discern what is driving this, you will increase the amount of information you have about yourself and as such should improve your decision making abilities. Our decisions determine how we choose to spend our time, who we choose to spend it with, how we choose to behave, where we choose to be and so on. We have greater autonomy over our lives than we often realise. In developed economies we often take this privilege of autonomy in life’s decisions for granted and in this aspect there certainly remains less autonomy in the developing world.

In addition, there is good evidence to suggest that we are sub-optimal decision makers, often choosing to take the less risky option when facing important decisions. An interesting NBER working paper from Steven Levitt in 2016 found that when people outsource their decisions to a simple coin flip the individuals who are told by the coin toss to make a change are happier six months later than those who were told by the coin to maintain the status quo.

Between the 1st April 2019 and 28th January 2020 I tracked my own happiness each day in order to test what I could learn about myself from doing this and to broaden the information that I have available when making decisions. I did this using a very simple spreadsheet where I added a couple notes about how each day was and added in some information about what I did that day (i.e. yes/no questions about whether I exercised, socialised, drank alcohol and so on). The chart below shows an average and a seven day moving average across the 10 month period. The average is equal to 69.2 with scores on a scale of 0–100.

Briefly, what did I learn about myself from doing this exercise? Some of the findings were more obvious than others, for example scores on weekends (avg: 72.9) were consistently higher than scores on weekdays. And when I was on holiday I gave the highest scores (avg: 82.9). More interestingly, I enjoyed days where I socialised (avg: 72.8) a bit more than days where I exercised (avg: 71.8). But in both cases, days that included these activities I reported, on average, higher scores than days that didn’t include these activities. This project also confirmed that I am aversive to conflict, something that I already knew about myself. It was interesting to see nonetheless that days with the lowest scores were ones where I had a clash with another person. Lastly, on other days where I had lower scores I had referenced being bored completing monotonous tasks — I don’t tend to enjoy tasks that are repetitive or dull.

Now, at this point you might be thinking “it makes sense that more information improves decision making and it’s cool that this guy tracked how happy he was for 10 months in a spreadsheet but I’m not going to do that so this is all a bit useless”. That would be a fair criticism but fortunately you don’t need to use a spreadsheet anymore. I have created an index on my website that allows you to do this in a way that is personalised to you. When you create an account, you can choose which of the variables in the index are more important to you and the corresponding weights will shift to reflect that. In addition, depending on your current circumstances (i.e. if you are a student, or a parent or a retired person) the components that make up your index will be different to reflect your different circumstances. We believe that just using this index could make you happier as I argued in this article. So what are you waiting for?!

Economist w/ research interests in sustainable wellbeing, macro policy & sovereign debt (not necessarily at the same time). Website: exploringhappiness.co.uk

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