11/30/2012 05:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Quantifying Happiness

Three years ago, while volunteering in Nkubu, Kenya, I started an experiment to record my happiness at every hour of the day for two months. Each waking hour, I pulled out my little red notebook from my pocket and recorded two things:

  1. A number from one to 10 representing how I felt and,
  2. My activities during the previous hour

Those two months turned out to be the happiest period of my life.

I always wondered; what was it about those two months that made them my happiest months? Volunteering had to be a part of it, but beyond that, what actions and what surroundings made me most happy? For the past three weeks, I decided to figure out exactly what makes me happy by running a similar experiment on myself. This time, I'm in Philadelphia working on my startup, Charlie, the mobile application that helps you nail all of your important meetings, interviews and calls. And this time, I didn't use my little red notebook, but rather a nifty new tool called Track Your Happiness.

Track Your Happiness is a mobile app used as part of a Harvard study that asks a series of questions a few times each day ("How do you feel right now?", "Where are you?", "What are you doing?", etc.). At the end of 50-question sets, the app provides a "Happiness Report" which explains what influenced your happiness.

What Makes Me Happy?

Prior to this experiment, I hypothesized that elements like sleep, productivity, who I was with, or maybe even the day of the week would affect my happiness. After the study, I went to the numbers to see if I was correct:


Was it sleep that made me happy? The results, pictured above, show that both the amount of sleep and my sleep quality (top left) had little effect on happiness.

If sleep did not have an impact on my happiness, maybe my productivity (top right) did? This graph shows that productivity did not seem to be correlated with happiness. Nonetheless, I concluded two insights from this graph: 1) I can only be productive if I am happy and 2), If I am unproductive, this does not mean that I am unhappy. So was there any one thing that made me happy?

Yes, and it surprised me, because what made me happy had little to do with my actions, and more to do with my thoughts. The answer: focus.


I found that focus is the key to happiness; when I am focused, I am never unhappy. The same cannot be said about when I am unfocused. Regardless of whether I was working or relaxing, if I focused upon the activity at hand, I was happy. These results were consistent with the rest of the participants in the Track Your Happiness study. This research, which was conducted by Harvard researchers to ascertain what had an impact on happiness, concluded that focus is key to happiness and that "a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind."

Essentially, if you aren't in the moment (even if what you are thinking about is positive), you will be less happy than if you were in the moment (even if what you are doing is negative).

So, lets just stay in the moment... Simple, right?

Not at All

In this always-connected age, where we are barraged with social updates, emails, meetings and calls, it is nearly impossible to "stay in the moment." This pain point was one of the main reasons I created my startup and is something I struggle with every day. Fortunately, after much trial and error, I found one action that keeps me focused and in control.


Why was I so happy in Nkubu, Kenya? Part of the reason, I suspect, was because I had no distractions; I had no phone, no computer -- nothing to distract me from what I was doing. This is simply not possible to replicate back at home. However, there are some tools and techniques that can help you stay in the moment. Here are the big four that I use:

  1. Inbox Pause: a free service which pauses all emails from showing up in your Inbox and emails the sender that you have "paused your Inbox" and will respond later.
  2. Pomodoro: a time management technique which keeps you in the moment by forcing you to do one thing at a time
  3. Self-Control: a free mac tool that blocks the websites of your choice for a certain time period. Even if you uninstall the app, you will not be able to access the websites until the countdown is complete.
  4. "Do Not Disturb" on the iPhone: Let yourself unwind at night. When turned on, this feature silences your notifications so that your iPhone does not interrupt you.

What do you use to stay in the moment?