Quantifying Happiness — by listing 3 positive things per day

Several months back I read what quickly became one of my favourite books of all time, The Happiness Advantage, by Shawn Achor. The reason I loved it so much? It did something I didn’t think possible: it quantified happiness.

Now, quantifying things is something my number-minded brain loves. I can’t easily pick between two identical looking umbrellas on Amazon, but if one of them has 1,000 reviews at 4.9/5.0, and the other has 2,000 reviews at 3.8/5.0, then I’m buying the first one.

But there are certain things in life you simply can’t quantify, and it’s typically the important stuff: love, health, happiness, etc. However what you can do, is analyse people’s opinions and experience on these subjects, and then quantify that analysis, and that’s exactly what Shawn Achor did.

Now I won’t go too much into Shawn’s book — other than to repeat that it is absolutely fantastic and that you should read it — but what I did want to do was to report back on one of the exercises Shawn suggests you do.

In the book, Shawn suggests that you note down 3 positive things every day. These can be absolutely anything (so long as it truly happened) and can have had as a big an impact as to make you leap for joy, or as little as to make you crack a small smile. If it made you happy, it can go on the list.

So I set a daily reminder right before I went to sleep, to look back over the course of the day and find 3 positive things. I then completed this task without fail for around 6 months, adding the entries each day into an (eventually very long) list.

The idea behind this exercise is that it makes you consciously aware of what makes you happy throughout your day. The intention is that over time, you learn to recognise what makes you happy, and perhaps even to realise just how many things make you happy.

If I’m honest, that didn’t happen for me.

In reality what I found was that whilst writing down these things did force me to think back over my day and really look for sources of happiness, what it really did was to quickly highlight days where I actually struggled to find 3 positive things.

Now, this isn’t a slight on… my life. For most of this experiment I was working a job I enjoyed in a part of the world I love, surrounded by family and friends. But the sad reality of life (especially mid-COVID life) is that some days you really don’t have anything good going on. Some days are… normal workdays, and you might genuinely not crack a smile or leave the house.

Of course, those days are few and far between, and it’s far more likely that I simply didn’t recall smiling at the end of the day, rather than that it never happened in the first place.

Whilst the results of this experiment were interesting, they weren’t at all quantifiable, and once again: I’m powered by numbers. So, I set about categorising the entries in order to allow me then quantify the results.

It’s worth pointing out that there was a lot of crossover here (if you went for a coffee walk with friends, was that “socialising”, “outdoors” or “food/drink”?), so the data isn’t perfect, but here are the categories I decided upon:

  • Family
  • Food & Drink
  • Gaming
  • Health & Fitness
  • Money (saving)
  • My newborn child
  • My wife
  • Other
  • Outdoors
  • Personal Progression
  • Productivity
  • Socialising
  • Tesla
  • Work

Before we continue, it’s probably worth pointing out a few things here:

  1. Part-way through the experiment I bought a Tesla, and am a massive Tesla geek. Unsurprisingly, this had an impact
  2. Also part-way through the experiment, my first child was born. Again, this had an impact. More of an impact than the Tesla? Well, I like to refer to them both as my babies, and one of them is much quieter than the other
  3. These categories were decided after the experiment rather than before, as I really had no idea what would end up in this list beforehand

Not all that surprisingly (for me at least), food & drink proved to be the single biggest source of happiness over the experiment. Now, if you’re my wife or child, you may be a little offended here, but rest assured that in most cases those incidents of food and drink included you (and if that fails… I’m very sorry).

What was interesting however was that although my professional work ranked highly (11.4% of all happiness), it did not come close to representing the amount of my time spent on it (roughly 36% of my waking time, and 24% of my total time). Now, I’m in the lucky group of people who actually enjoy my work, but something about these numbers leads me to question if I’m enjoying it enough? Is a salary justification enough for an underrepresented amount of happiness? It’s an interesting question, albeit perhaps a little too philosophical for this post, so I’ll get back to the numbers.

Another noteworthy category was productivity, which caused more than double the amount of happiness as health & fitness. This was an interesting one for me, as I consider myself fairly fond of health & fitness, however I can understand it, given my love for doing things better and more efficiently (I’m real fun at parties, honest).

Everything else was more or less expected. My newborn child, family and my new Tesla all ranked highly, but see for yourself:

I had hoped going into this that I might come out of it with a newfound sense of “Well, turns out I love <thing>, so I’ll do more of that!”, however that sadly hasn’t been the case. Whilst food & drink ranked highly, it isn’t practical for me to eat out or experiment with some new recipe 3 times a day, and it’s even less likely that those experiments would go perfectly (and thus result in a point of happiness) every single time.

It has however helped me to identify day-to-day when “happy” things occur, and has made me somewhat more aware and appreciative of them.

So a good outcome, but not a life-changing one, unfortunately.

One thing that I really enjoyed from this experiment, was the ever-growing list of unusual points of happiness I recorded. It’s a list I will likely keep forever, and one I will look back at periodically for a reminder of the things that brought a smile to my face.

Case in point: several months back, I apparently had a “good avocado experience”… 🥑

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Duncan McArdle

Full-stack software developer from the UK, author of the Aftermath book series, full time tech-nerd.