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REVIEWED BY ACADEMIC STAFF OF ANGLIA RUSKIN UNIVERSITY

The science of happiness and well-being

Despite occupying the minds of people since the ancient times of Aristotle, the topic of the pursuit of happiness has gained particular attention in modern societies. The reasons for this growing interest in the science of happiness are multifold. Thanks to the economic development, people have more choices and opportunities to take purposeful actions for living a happy life, especially in the Western world (Bakker, Burger, van Haren, Oerlemans, & Veenhoven, 2020). Furthermore, recent discoveries show that happiness is regarded less as a spiritual matter of destiny (Nes & Røysamb, 2016), but rather as something that can be proactively developed and sustained (Sezer & Can, 2019). Specifically, 40% of human happiness have been found to depend on an individual’s decisions (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2019). Finally, the interest of being happy has been fuelled by the discovery of positive effects that go beyond just feeling well. To name a few, happy people were found to be more productive (Oswald, Proto, & Sgroi, 2015); more social, active, and engaged (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005), as well as to live longer (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005; Veenhoven, 2009).

The combination of these concurrent factors led to the development of several positive psychology interventions and techniques, as well as commercial products and services, all with the goal to help people become happier in their everyday life. These techniques can be broadly divided into two large segments – fostering specific life skills and raising awareness of how one lives and feels (Bergsma, Veenhoven, & Buijt, 2020).

 

Mastering life skills, such as future planning, would enable the individual to actively make necessary changes in their life to make it more fulfilling. There are however documented limitations to this approach: it takes time for such skills to develop and, even when they are sufficiently developed to make a positive impact, their effectiveness is often context-dependent (Bergsma et al., 2020). On the opposite side, raising awareness techniques, such as mood tracking or activity journaling, help individuals make more conscious choices on how to improve their lives and pursue happiness in ways that are meaningful and relevant for the ones’ well-being. Limitations of such approach are twofold: first, awareness itself does not automatically lead to a lifestyle change; second, these interventions are associated with high levels of attrition (Bergsma et al., 2020).

While both types of interventions lead to an increase in well-being, the positive change from raising awareness of one’s happiness is significantly greater than the effects of other single-method techniques for improving well-being (Bergsma et al., 2020).

  
Accordingly, the aim of this paper is to propose a positive psychology artefact to help people improve their well-being by raising awareness about their happiness on a regular basis, while addressing the shortcomings highlighted above.

 
It is important to note that the terms happiness and subjective well-being hereinafter will be used interchangeably in line with the proposition by Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) that “SWB is only a more scientific-sounding term for what people usually mean by happiness” (p.9).

How does it increase one's well-being?

The artefact is developed based on the evidence from Bakker et al. (2020) and Ludwigs, Lucas, Burger, Veenhoven, and Arends (2018) that regular tracking of one’s happiness level increases the awareness of the latter. This, in turn, helps individuals find a personally optimal lifestyle and, as a result, advance further their level of happiness.


To explain how the happiness trackers work, Ludwigs et al. (2018) suggests the speedometer as a metaphor. An experienced driver, who mastered the craft of driving, would not find much value in a speedometer. Such drivers typically have a good sense of the vehicle, its speed, and the track, hence, do not need to look at the speedometer often. Similarly, more attention to one’s well-being would not detriment or benefit the well-being of a person who already thrives in life. On the opposite side, for a driver who does not know how to drive, the speedometer is not a priority. Their primary concern should be on how to start the car, which buttons to push and how to steer the wheel. Focusing on the speedometer would only highlight further their inability to drive as well add pressure and anxiety. In this metaphor, such drivers would correspond to people with mental health issues such as depression. With no life skills to rely on day by day, tracking well-being would only make such people less happy. It is one of intervention limitations, which will be outlined in the corresponding section. However, for the average, less skilful driver riding on an unknown track, a speedometer can significantly minimise the risk of an accident and maximise the pleasure of the journey. Similar to the benefits of the speedometer, through the meta-awareness brought by the happiness tracker, “average” drivers would be able to master the craft of living well and move from unconscious experiencing to conscious thriving.


From a scientific perspective, in line with Bakker et al. (2020), there are 4 psychological processes and theories that make regular happiness tracking and, as a result, “The Calendar of Happiness” artefact yield positive results.


First, our emotions have a signalling function of how well we are doing (Schwarz, 2012). Positive feelings suggest that an activity is in line with our nature (Grinde, 2002), whereas negative affect signals the need to change something in our behaviour or context. From this perspective, being more aware of your affect becomes instrumental in learning more about activities and situations that make a person happy. This, in turn, enables them to proactively find and engage in the right activities for the right person in the right situations to improve their subjective well-being (Ludwigs et al., 2018). Similarly, Wismeijer, van Assen, Sijtsma, and Vingerhoets (2009) demonstrated that a higher awareness of emotions leads to better mood regulation and higher SWB levels.


Second, the positive effect of happiness tracking goes in line with Fredrickson’s “broaden-and-build” theory (Conner & Reid, 2011). Paying more attention to one’s happiness may strengthen the power of the positive affect, which could expand one’s thought-action repertoire and build long-lasting psychological resources, leading to stronger overall well-being (Fredrickson, 2001).


Third, due to the bias in affective recall, people rarely have an accurate view on how happy they actually are (Bakker et al., 2020). The more variable and stronger are one’s emotions and the longer is the timespan across which they are experienced, the more distorted is one’s perception of their average level of well-being (Kahneman & Krueger, 2006; Wilson, Meyers, & Gilbert, 2003). This misguided view on one’s historical happiness, as well as on factors responsible for it, leads to poor predictions of the effect certain decisions will have on the future level of well-being (Gilbert, 2009). In this light, systematic (e.g. daily) tracking of happiness levels across a prolonged period of time (e.g. a year) could result in a clearer understanding of their average well-being. Furthermore, this could form a ground for more informed decisions aimed at the long-term improvement in one’s well-being (Bakker et al., 2020).


Similar to the previous point, the memory bias makes it difficult for people to correctly attribute long-term changes in the happiness level to small daily actions (Bakker et al., 2020). The effects of happiness-boosting activities on well-being are often delayed, and happiness tracking can make them more apparent. Being more aware of the impact activities have on one’s well-being enables the individual to identify the right strategies that work for a specific individual in pursuing a happier life.


The scientific underpinning behind the systematic happiness tracking goes in line with the concept of the informed pursuit of happiness, described by Veenhoven (2015), which requires individuals to continuously reflect on their well-being and act upon gained insights to gain benefits from it. This has direct implications for the target audience that will be more likely to profit from the suggested artefact, which will be covered in the next section.

Who would get the most out of it?

Since the artefact is as easy to use as gluing a sticker onto the right date in the calendar, in theory, any individual of any age could participate in this positive intervention. However, the review of similar positive psychology interventions by Bergsma et al. (2020) suggests three characteristics profiling the target audience that is more likely to experience stronger positive effects from the usage of “The Calendar of Happiness”. 


As mentioned in the previous section, the intervention requires the ability of an individual not only to reflect on how they feel, but also to understand the abstract notions of self and well-being, as well as to operate multiple dynamic cause-effect relationships. To get the maximum of the intervention one should ideally be able both to reflect consciously and independently as well as to be in a position to take significant decisions impacting their life.  


Positive psychology interventions like “The Calendar of Happiness” are more likely to be more effective among people who have self-selected to participate in it (Bergsma et al., 2020). Self-selection is a known effectiveness determinant of psychotherapy (Le, Doctor, Zoellner, & Feeny, 2014) and positive psychology interventions (Parks et al., 2013). Giving people the opportunity to choose which interventions to engage with goes in line with the sense of autonomy, one of the basic psychological needs of the Self-Determination Theory. Hence, people voluntarily choosing to track their happiness are likely to be more motivated to keep up with the habit and to improve their happiness as a result of it. 


Bakker et al. (2020) revealed that people with initially lower levels of well-being experienced the biggest gains from the happiness tracker intervention. It is in line with the overview of other positive psychology interventions made by Bergsma et al. (2020). Apart from the bigger potential for improvement, the potential explanation for this effect is based on stronger motivation of relatively unhappier people to improve their life (Bakker et al., 2020). However, just as in the speedometer metaphor, if the lower levels of well-being are caused by poor mental health, happiness trackers will not yield any positive effect and can be even detrimental to one’s well-being. 


What are the limitations of the impact?

As noted above, the use of “The Calendar of Happiness” and other happiness trackers is suggested to be limited to people without clinical issues with their mental health. According to Conner and Reid (2011) happiness tracking requires shifting attention to one’s self and, in line with the “broaden-and-build” theory, for individuals with mental vulnerabilities, it can start the downward spiral of satisfaction. Conner and Reid (2011) suggested two conditions that could minimise the counterproductive effect on people high on depression and neuroticism. First, reflection frequency should not exceed once a day to avoid triggering rumination and distressing emotionally vulnerable people. Second, the reflection itself should be brief to drawing continuous attention to their generally unhappy state. In this light, “The Calendar of Happiness” artefact meets these two suggested criteria as the reflection would take place only once a day and will be as short as gluing in a sticker.


The additional potential limitation to positive effects of the proposed artefact stems from the paradoxical evidence that the more people want to be happy the less they are (Mauss, Tamir, Anderson, & Savino, 2011). Correlational and experimental studies show that higher self-focus, potentially evoked by well-being tracking, is associated with stronger negative affect (Mor et al., 2010). One of the reasons behind it is that expectations about happiness and other daily emotional experiences are often more intense than the actual happiness (Miron-Shatz, Stone, & Kahneman, 2009; Morewedge, Gilbert, & Wilson, 2005; Schooler, Ariely, & Lowenstein, 2003; Wirtz, Kruger, Christie, & Diener, 2003). However, empirical longitudinal studies on happiness trackers like “The Calendar of Happiness” fail to replicate this negative effect in non-clinical samples (Bakker et al., 2020; Ludwigs et al., 2018). Tracking one’s well-being is less about creating expectations of the future happiness or increasing the desire to be happy than about reflecting on the current state and factors affecting it. Just like in the previously discussed metaphor, the goal of the speedometer is not to reach the maximum speed while driving, but to make the journey as enjoyable and safe as possible.

 
As already mentioned, one of the obvious limitations of awareness-targeted interventions such as journals or mood trackers is the high levels of attrition. The format of “The Calendar of Happiness” artefact was designed specifically to address this limitation. Due to its large size and the need to hang the artefact on the wall, it is expected that it will serve as a continuous visual reminder during the intervention. Additionally, as the artefact uses light elements of gamification by displaying the intervention progress as well as gains aesthetical beauty and personal value with every sticker glued in, “The Calendar of Happiness” is expected to maintain the participant motivation throughout the intervention.

 

As mentioned in the previous section, the intervention requires the ability of an individual not only to reflect on how they feel, but also to understand the abstract notions of self and well-being, as well as to operate multiple dynamic cause-effect relationships. To get the maximum of the intervention one should ideally be able both to reflect consciously and independently as well as to be in a position to take significant decisions impacting their life.  

 

Positive psychology interventions like “The Calendar of Happiness” are more likely to be more effective among people who have self-selected to participate in it (Bergsma et al., 2020). Self-selection is a known effectiveness determinant of psychotherapy (Le, Doctor, Zoellner, & Feeny, 2014) and positive psychology interventions (Parks et al., 2013). Giving people the opportunity to choose which interventions to engage with goes in line with the sense of autonomy, one of the basic psychological needs of the Self-Determination Theory. Hence, people voluntarily choosing to track their happiness are likely to be more motivated to keep up with the habit and to improve their happiness as a result of it. 

 

Bakker et al. (2020) revealed that people with initially lower levels of well-being experienced the biggest gains from the happiness tracker intervention. It is in line with the overview of other positive psychology interventions made by Bergsma et al. (2020). Apart from the bigger potential for improvement, the potential explanation for this effect is based on stronger motivation of relatively unhappier people to improve their life (Bakker et al., 2020). However, just as in the speedometer metaphor, if the lower levels of well-being are caused by poor mental health, happiness trackers will not yield any positive effect and can be even detrimental to one’s well-being. 

 

What are the expected outcomes?

Since “The Calendar of Happiness” asks participants to colour-code their happiness levels from low to high, the visual analysis of the filled-in calendar can provide an initial indication of the changes in the self-reported happiness. To quantify the effect, a practitioner could ask a participant to fill in a short questionnaire on 3 main components of the subjective well-being: life satisfaction, positive affect, and negative affect (Diener, 1984) – during the course of the intervention. 

 

In line with previous empirical studies on happiness trackers by Ludwigs et al. (2018) and Bakker et al. (2020), “The Calendar of Happiness” is expected to yield no negative outcomes in the pessimistic scenario and up to +23% higher happiness levels in the optimistic scenario for the defined target audience. Based on previous evidence, the happiness tracking should have positive effects on all 3 main components of subjective well-being. Participants are expected to understand better how satisfied they are with life based on their increased awareness (Ludwigs et al., 2018). In line with the “broaden-and-build” theory, additional effects of a happier life could include greater positive affect, lower negative affect, greater emotional intelligence, greater sense of autonomy and self-efficacy.

 

As previous happiness tracking studies focused on relatively short timeframes of interventions, they did not identify significant shifts in cognitive well-being measures. In contrast, a yearlong intervention through the proposed “The Calendar of Happiness” artefact could capture the medium-term effect of informed life decisions and important life events on the overall perception of meaning and purpose in life. Asking the participant to complete questionnaires based on Satisfaction with Life Scale (Diener, Emmons, Larsen, & Griffin, 1985) and Flourishing Scale (Diener et al., 2009) before and after the intervention would also provide first insights into the effect of happiness tracking on the cognitive part of happiness. 

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Calendar of Happiness is a product of the 100happydays foundation on the mission to make the world happier. The calendar is designed by Dmitry Golubnichy, a world-renown positive psychology expert with an academic degree in the applied positive psychology.