Ph.D., Harvard University Social Psychology B.S.E., Duke University Electrical/Computer Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, Economics
My research aims to understand the causes and nature of human happiness. When surveyed, people tend to place greater importance on happiness than on any other goal, and many thinkers have argued that happiness is the ultimate end towards which other pursuits aim. Although happiness was long thought to be too subjective to study scientifically, it has become increasingly clear that happiness can be usefully measured. In turn, insights into happiness and its causes have the potential not only to explain and predict people’s behavior but also to help people make smarter, more informed decisions.
My approach is guided by the proposition that the proximal causes of happiness reside in people’s everyday experiences. While most happiness research has focused on understanding who is happy (e.g., the wealthy versus the poor), I am particularly interested in understanding when people are happy. In other words, my research emphasizes the situational factors that proximately affect people's happiness. In addition to being interesting in their own right, my findings suggest that these proximal factors are often the mediating pathways through which more stable factors exert their influence. This approach has the potential to reveal novel causes of happiness and to generate discoveries that are likely to be useful to individuals, organizations, and governments because—by virtue of being situational—they may be amenable to change.
Although studying people’s experiences in real time has tremendous potential to produce insights into happiness, practical limitations have historically made the study of such experiences challenging. To address these challenges, I created a smartphone-based research platform (trackyourhappiness.org) that enables data collection from large numbers of geographically dispersed people. It pings people in real-time during daily life on their phones and asks them to report the details of their experiences at that moment, including how happy they are, what they are doing, who they are with, what they are thinking about, and many other factors. To date, more than 100,000 participants have provided over 5,000,000 real-time reports of their experiences across several hundred different variables. This has generated a unique dataset of real-time happiness and its correlates and provided personalized insight into the predictors of happiness for its participants.