The Happiness Economy

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happiness_economyIf you’re thinking the study of happiness and well-being seems flaky, you’re missing a major trend that’s beginning to influence a number of global economies, argues John Havens, a scheduled speaker at Sibos 2013, an annual event that brings together around 7,000 banks from around the world.

A study by Jeffrey Sachs, the renowned economist from Columbia University who edited the first World Happiness Report for the United Nations, found that gross national product is not a reliable measure of happiness because too much emphasis on boosting the economy can be detrimental to people’s sense of well-being.

Scientists and other experts have started providing hard data that supports a balanced approach to happiness rather than too singular a focus on money or self. The H(app)athon Project, which Havens founded, will attempt to help people do just that. The project’s stated goal is to “give big data a direction” and help people leverage the mobile sensors in their smartphones to identify what brings meaning to their lives and improve their sense of well-being.

The H(app)athon Project plans to use answers to a survey, a method used for years by the United Nations and other organizations that have attempted to measure happiness, coupled with  smartphone data, to come up with a person’s Personal Happiness Indicator (PHI) score. According to the Project website, the score is”a representation of their core strength much like a Myers-Briggs personality description.”

The idea is to then use the PHI data to match people with an activity or volunteer organization that will make them happier (Havens notes that studies show action and altruism increase happiness).

“We’re not focused on rainbows and unicorns but rather objective data,” says Havens, a former public relations executive and the author of Hacking H(app)iness, which is due out next year. “Our ultimate goal, which is quite economic, is to show people they’re worth more than wealth and that there are other ways to measure happiness then just seeing how much somebody earns and how much stuff they have.”

The H(app)athon Project has attracted some heavy hitters: its advisory committee includes individuals from The World Economic Forum, MIT, salesforce.com, Microsoft, the United Nations, and the University of Cambridge, as well as more than a dozen emerging media experts in the fields of quantified self, data science, and mobile technology.

Havens is confident he can convince the cynics, including the bankers among them, not only that measuring happiness can be more precise than it has ever been, but that it can also be good for business.

The H (app)athon Project officially launched on March 20th, the UN’s first International Day of Happiness, with an initial version of the survey. One of its most important takeaways was that 90% of respondents filled in the text boxes of open-ended questions that let people define what well-being means to them and what brings them happiness.

“My team told me to keep it to multiple-choice questions and not to include open text boxes for responses because people hate those when they take a survey,” says Havens. “But we had the open text boxes and the very high response rate infers people don’t get enough chances to talk about what brings them a deeper sense of purpose and meaning to their lives. I don’t think people are given permission or allow themselves to reflect on their lives because we’re so focused on being productive at all costs.”

An updated version of the survey will be used in a pilot project later this year involving Somerville, Massachusetts.  Somerville claims to be the first American city to implement Happiness Indicator metrics with a sitting government. “Our hope is that by adding sensor data into the mix we can gain critical insights to help with transparent city planning that improves citizens’ well-being,” Havens says.

Running the pilot will not be cheap and Havens says he is looking for $250,000 in funding, as well as sponsors for next year’s conference. While money is scarce now, the idea is to turn measuring happiness into a consultancy business that can pay the handful of H(app)athon Project staff members.

For now, the app (for Android devices and the iPhone) that smartphone users will install is being built in hackathons running up to the Sommerville pilot. The goal is to use the data from the pilot to create a finalized app that can be launched on or near March 20th, 2014, the date of a planned conference in New York City focused on the H(app)athon Project.

The plan is for the app to collect information on a person’s heart rate and stress. An accelerometer in the phone will measure movement, i.e., running or walking. Mood will be gleaned by measuring vocal tone and the GPS will track a person’s location to determine mood (a zoo may indicate happiness and a hospital sadness). “Happiness as a mood is ephemeral and highly subjective,” says Havens. “We couldn’t, and wouldn’t try to tell a person what makes them happy. And yet by looking at certain data, for example your heart rate, your stress level measured through your perspiration and the physical locations where these measurements were taken, I can get a sense about your emotions at that particular moment.”

To allay fears about the loss of privacy, the app is being built using Open Mustard Seed, a platform that allows people to lock away their data and share only what they want when they want. The data can be deleted at any time by the user of the app.

“If we do this well we’ll be giving mayors a tool they can use to better understand what brings their citizens increased well-being and happiness,” says Havens. “The nature of the tool is also to increase transparency between citizens and their local government so if people have issues with their communities, mayors and their staff will get to know that as well as positive feedback.”

So far more than a dozen H(app)athon workshops have taken place in cities around the world. A workshop, led by Havens, is also scheduled at the Sibos Conference in Dubai, September 14th-16th.

 

 

 

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