The iPhone, increasingly ubiquitous these days, can add another node to its "Where I've Been" widget: the pages of the leading research journal Science. A pair of Harvard psychologists used an iPhone app as the principal research tool for a study on happiness, published today in the journal.
The "Track Your Happiness" app, we noted when it first launched, periodically pings you throughout the day, asking you to fill out a survey that only takes a minute. It asks how happy you are, what you're doing at the moment, whether you exercised recently, whether you're alone, and whether your mind is either wandering or in the moment.
That last question proved to be the key to the study, which concluded that a main cause of people's unhappiness is how frequently their minds wander. According to the app, 46.9 percent of people's time is spent thinking on something other than what they're doing. And using a bit of statistical wizardry, study authors Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert were able to tease out that that mind-wandering was in fact the cause of much of the unhappiness. In fact, what activity a person was engaged in only accounted for about 5 percent of a person's happiness, whereas whether that person's mind was on- or off-task accounted for over 10 percent.
"A wandering mind is an unhappy mind," the researchers conclude. In other news, though, having sex makes people happy. It was the one activity where people reported mind-wandering less than 30% of the time.
Typical happiness studies might rely on surveys requiring participants to stretch their memory or provide rough estimates ("How did you feel this past month?"). By using the iPhone app, researchers were able to sample moment-to-moment happiness levels. And, naturally, drum up some tech press to recruit volunteers—the researchers racked up 250,000 data points for their study.
It's an interesting study, though we'd love to see even more metrics. A British imitator called "Mappiness" has been trying to study the effects of place on happiness. And of course, one has to consider that iPhone users are not representative of the general population of smart-phone users, let alone of America or of the world. Apple users tend to be satisfied, according to a recent survey—even when an app is interrupting them while they're making love.
[Image: Flickr user ryanoelke]