On a plane somewhere between Hong Kong and Toronto, my iPhone timer buzzed for the 431st time in February. It was February 28, 11:16 pm Hong Kong time, and this would be my last moment of self-reflection for the month. I recorded the emotion that I’m sure a few of the other passengers shared: “Hoping for a meal.”
At the beginning of February, I had embarked on an experiment in self-knowledge. I believe strongly that knowing yourself is a major component of happiness, but how do you go about doing that? Understanding my feelings and emotions sounded like a good place to start.
So (nearly) every hour in February, I stopped to jot down my current emotion, then set a timer for another hour. Sometimes I forgot, and I went a few hours ignorantly un-self-aware. But I never missed more than a few. In addition, I used a service called AskMeEvery to record my daily level of stress and happiness. I kept track of my sleep, and I could also see how many happy moments I shared on Happier (acting like a gratitude journal).
Looking back, February was a packed month. I spent three weeks in Bali, devoting my daytime energies to helping my boss write a book and immersing myself in Bali’s beauty and warm weather on nights and weekends. I spent the last week in February in Hong Kong in the tiniest hotel room you could possibly imagine, hurrying to finish the book manuscript and prepare for another big SXSW conference. When all was said and done, I had recorded a total of 176 positive emotions, 216 negative, and 39 neutral. I had 14 days that were a 7 out of 10 on the happiness scale, eight days that were an 8, and six days that were a 6. And only five times during the month (approximately) did I yell at my phone for its constant buzzing.
As you might imagine, recording your mood every hour isn’t the easiest task in the world. Sometimes it takes a minute or two to actually discern how you’re feeling, and I was often tempted to write down my thoughts, rather than my emotions. A few moments were still recorded as simply “hungry” or “starving,” and darned if I knew what else I was feeling at the time. After awhile, I realized that it helped to first figure out whether I was feeling something positive or negative, then go from there.
On the flipside, it’s funny how little effort it sometimes took for me to be aware of my current feelings. A simple “How am I feeling?” reveals a wealth of information that we wouldn’t realize otherwise as we plow through our lives. And it can change our behavior. Once, for example, I was regretting my meal choice but — realizing a buzz from my alarm was approaching — told myself to snap out of it and focus on the beautiful restaurant, my dinner companion, and the nice music playing. Who wants their life record for February 10 at 8:10 pm to read “feel bad about ordering that beef”?
Finally, I realized that I’m relatively lucky. Despite some stress and some worry, my worst day in February was only a “6,” which is still on the positive side of the scale. Oh, and I could use more sleep — I’m not proud that my average snooze was 7 hours and 10 minutes. (I blame it on early-morning meetings.) Here’s all the data I recorded, in case you’re curious:
Sleep. Comparing sleep to my overall happiness for the day didn’t yield the results I expected — i.e., more sleep = more happy. In fact, of all the days with less than 6.5 hours of sleep, none of them were a “6.” And most of my “8” days were clustered around 6.5 hours or less of sleep. I can only conclude that these days were longer, and gave me more opportunity to be productive, which (as I’ll discuss below) is a big contributor to my happiness.
It just so happens that my average sleep was 7.17 hours and my average daily happiness for the month was 7.07. Perhaps if I slept 10 hours a day, every day would be a 10?
Stress. All my “6” days (except one) had some stress. So if I’m having a “bad” day, stress is probably contributing. But stress doesn’t always make it a bad day.
Gratitude journal. I observed no correlation between writing down happy moments and happier days. In fact, on three of my “8” days, I didn’t share any moments. Perhaps I was too engaged in enjoying the day to stop and write anything down; perhaps I’m more likely to use Happier to remind myself of the good things when life isn’t going so well. That said, extensive research has shown the benefits of writing down three things you’re grateful for, and I only met that goal on one day in February.
Ratio of positive to negative emotions. Unsurprisingly, bad days (6’s) have more negative emotions. The average bad day had a ratio of 0.46 — more negative than positive emotions — and all bad days were 0.625 or less, going as low as 0.308 (a ratio of 4:13). My negative emotions ran the gamut of health worries to tension with other people to feeling overwhelmed.
The average “7” day had a ratio of 0.91, with slightly more negative emotions than positive. In fact, “7” days ranged all the way from a ratio of 0.273 (the lowest ever) to a 4.
Of course, good days (8’s) tend to have more positive emotions — except when they don’t. The average “8” day had a ratio of 2.38, filled with moments of feeling productive and connected to others. Almost every “8” day included some element of novelty, as I explored rice terraces, visited a temple, or took a cooking class.
But not all “8” days were full of positive moments: February 18 was equally balanced, with a ratio of 1, and February 27 was a low 0.375. On the 18th, I had an important meeting for work and gave a presentation at a local coworking space — both stressful and high-pressure situations. On February 27, what felt like the most packed day of the month, I rushed between running errands, giving another presentation, and staying up until 1:00 am to get our book manuscript in submittable format.
Research cited in “A meaningful life does not guarantee a happy one” shows that activities involving giving, sacrifice, and effort — like raising kids and running marathons — don’t make us happier in the moment, but make our lives more meaningful. I think this partly explains why I still gave an “8” to two days with so many negative emotions: they were days worth living. I was putting in effort and growing as a person, although I wasn’t as happy in the moment. I may not want to relive them, but I’m glad to have lived them. Sometimes moment-to-moment happiness isn’t all we seek.
Days of the week. For fun, I also measured my average Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and so on. Predictably, Monday is my worst day; surprisingly, Sunday tops Saturday, and Tuesday is my happiest. The only sense I can make of this is that weekends have more opportunity for novelty and connection, but also more opportunity for frustration and impatience — rain disrupting my plans, time being wasted in planning, or high expectations unfulfilled.
Qualitative results: Lessons about happiness
We can’t predict what will make us happy or unhappy. Reading through my emotions for the month, I realized that the same things brought me positive and negative feelings. I wasn’t looking forward to a certain interview, but I ended up enjoying it; a sugary slice of pie brought blissful feelings of anticipation before and guilt afterwards; a task that I thought would be a hassle was easy, short, and empowering. Daniel Gilbert wouldn’t be surprised. Also, the same things that we so anticipate and long for can be disappointing when they’re over, a phenomenon that one life coach calls a “happiness hangover.”
Happiness or unhappiness is about the stories we tell ourselves. Looking back, I saw tiny things shift my mood for the better (or worse): an email that opens up an opportunity, a little ache or pain, one negative criticism. The problem is that it’s easy to fixate on something and see it as part of a trend or narrative — like “My career is going well,” or “My body is so messed up.”
For Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project, a major part of her happiness comes from having an “atmosphere of growth” — that sense of forward motion and moving in the right direction. I agree; simply having this mood-tracking project in February made me feel like I was advancing in my happiness education. To stay happy, though, we need to watch out for little events or circumstances that create the opposite atmosphere: an atmosphere of decline.
What makes me happy. I grouped all my positive moments into categories, and by far the largest one was “productivity.” This wasn’t a surprise — I’m well aware that working and writing for my various blogs give me a sense of fulfillment. In particular, being near the end of the book project intensified those feelings. As a wannabe morning person, I was surprised that I tend to hit my stride later in the day — 74 percent of my productive moments happened after noon.
Anticipating the future was my second-highest source of positive moments. Anticipation is well-documented as a source of happiness, and it can vary from the short-term to the long-term: the meal arriving in minutes, the weekend coming up, or bright career prospects. Anticipating good things in the long-term is a kind of optimism about life.
A large chunk of my positive moments were also spent feeling engaged — in books and TV, working and writing, and (cheap, Balinese) massages. I sometimes feel guilty for the time I spend watching TV or movies, doing something “passive,” but they actually accounted for just over 10 percent of my total positive emotions during the month. Sometimes, we just need our Big Bang Theory.
What makes me unhappy. As someone who’s made big strides in confidence and overcoming shyness since high school, I was surprised to see my largest type of negative emotions were feelings of self-doubt — mostly about my career possibilities and the quality of my work. Often, these feelings came from my own internal standards — thank you, perfectionism! — but they were also influenced by external feedback (or lack thereof). While I had many moments of optimism about the future in February, I also felt pessimistic about the future at times. The difference came down to a question of focus: am I thinking about the article that got tons of pageviews, or the one critique in the comments?
Although I’m an externally patient person, impatience was the second-highest source of angst for me in February. It usually took the form of wanting to be done with a task, or wanting to arrive somewhere. For me, tedious tasks, transport, and (sometimes) exercise can’t end too soon. But many of these same activities were followed by a positive emotion, of the “glad that’s over!” variety. Once it’s done, we can celebrate.
Another major category of unhappiness for me is doing things I don’t want to be doing, like drudge work. Also in this category were the 13 times in February when I woke up feeling some version of “I don’t want to be awake now!!” Not only does that start off the day with a negative emotion, but it was usually followed by another negative emotion. A groggy start takes a while to recover from.
What my (honestly, depressing) list of 200+ negative emotions in February taught me is the value of acceptance. The two categories I just mentioned — impatience (wanting something to be over) and not wanting to do something — involve a clash between what I want and reality. The same goes for another major unhappiness category of mine, wanting what I don’t have. In all those cases, my internal desires are fighting against actual circumstances and leaving me unfulfilled.
If I learned to practice acceptance, I could understand that tedious work, early mornings, and delayed bus rides are all part of life. And, as the happiness gurus would say, there’s something positive to be found in them. Tedious work means I have a job, first of all, and it’s only tedious in comparison to the more interesting stuff I get to do. And that bumpy, hot bus ride is getting me to my next destination, a destination that many people never get to see.
Finally, I traced my negative emotions to other people about 20 times during the month — mainly people being annoying, or their sadness infecting me. And even fewer times (16) did I trace my positive emotions to others. These numbers might seem low, but I happen to be particularly introverted and introspective; I imagine they’d be higher for others.
If I learned anything in February, it’s that our moods and emotions are ever-changing. Honestly, it was kind of embarrassing to read through 400 moods and see myself go back and forth between optimism and pessimism, worry and excitement, boredom and flow. Every day had at least two negative emotions, and at least three positive ones, and some of those “neutral” emotions were actually mixed: excitement and nervousness, or gratitude and boredom. In the whole 28 days, there were only 18 times when my emotion was the same from one hour to the next — less than once per day!
If we get caught up in this ebb and flow of emotions, which I probably did in February, it can be exhausting! Learning how to even out the choppy waters should be on our list of life skills to learn. It’s something that meditation promises, the ability to find distance from your mind, accept the feeling, and breathe. “The more we see this coming and going of all phenomena — thoughts, feelings, sensations — the more we understand that they’re not part of who we are,” says Andy Puddicombe, founder of Headspace. “It allows us to be free.”
Observing your emotions for even a few hours or a day will help show you viscerally what I learned through this exercise: it all passes. I’m fine now. Why did I bother feeling angry, frustrated, or worried with something that would only become a memory, a bump on the path of life? If you zoom out your perspective a little, as if you’re looking out an airplane window, all the rough edges of life will become smoother.
Kira M. Newman is a journalist and writer who blogs about startups by day and happiness by night. She also does PR coaching for startups. Kira has been traveling around the world since 2011 and hopes to spend more time in Paris and Bali. Follow her @kiramnewman.