Pursuit of Happiness through Self-Quantification?

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quantified self personal analytics self-tracking happiness This weekend, I had a long and passionate phone conversation with one of my blog readers. We were talking about my blog and the Quantified Self movement. The gist of our conversation can be briefly summarized in the following dialog:

Reader: Love the idea of quantifying life. But I personally think it is very counterproductive. You are trying to measure too many things.
Me: Well, I am trying to show people that anything can be measured, quantified and categorized. Any aspect of our life.
Reader: But by focusing too much on converting every aspect of your life into numbers, you are missing out the very purpose of it: to live and enjoy it.
Me: Well, actually, the ultimate goal of my blog is to help me live better. I am trying to “flash out” certain factors that drive my life, so I could control and manipulate them in order to “optimize” my life.
Reader: But that’s impossible. There are gazillions of factors that influence every aspect of our lives, every second. It is impossible for a human to take them all into account, much less to control or manipulate them.
Me: Yes, I agree, there are factors that I cannot control. But among the millions of the factors that can be controlled, there are certain ones that play more important role than others, and have more “weight” in shaping other aspects of our life. Take, for example, sleep. If I learn to sleep better, I will improve my mood, productivity and many other things on the following day. I just need to know, how to sleep better.
Reader: Why just don’t accept the life as it is, with all its moments, whether those moments bring you sorrow or happiness, inconvenience or comfort?
Me: But what is wrong with wanting to experience less moments of sorrow, and have more moments of comfort? Is not that the ultimate dream of all humans, to optimize the happiness function?
Reader: You find the happiness by simply living…
Me: Yep, and for many people, it may take all their life. And some people never find it. Thanks, but I’d rather not wait that long. I want to derive the ultimate formula for happiness. The one that will work for me, so I could be happy, now.
Reader: Can happiness be measured? Can you really express the joy of every moment in your life in numbers?
Me: Theoretically, yes.
Reader: Hmm.. We are back to square one. You will be reducing your life to mere numbers, missing out on joy and sadness.
Me: I believe that life can be measured by BOTH the number of breaths we take AND the number of moments that take our breath away. It’s the matter of perspective. You say “tomato”, I say “22 calories, 0 grams fat, 0 grams protein, 5 grams carbs, taste factor 5.5 on my personal taste preference scale”. That “taste factor” helps me to know for sure that I like bananas more than tomatoes.
Reader: Sigh..I see you in the future, locked up in the room with the padded walls, scribbling away your happiness equations.

We finished the conversation with a good hearty laughter, concluding that the differences in our perspectives are most likely rooted in our personalities (locus of control was one of the things that came to my mind) and mindsets (he is an artist and designer, and I am a data analyst). In its essence, our conversation is a modern take on the XX century’s “lyricists versus physicists” debate (or, as we like to call it in market research, “quants versus quals”). But the question whether you can actually live by the numbers, AND still truly enjoy the life, stuck in my head. Furthermore, could living by the numbers lead to a truly BETTER and FULLER life? Can self-quantification help us find happiness? I don’t know.

But there is one thing i know for sure: if the answer to the question “what is the meaning of life” is indeed 42, then it will be us, Quants, who will find it first!

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One Response to Pursuit of Happiness through Self-Quantification?

  1. Dave Shelton says:

    I think there is room for both of your methods for pursuing happiness and they are both applicable, but in different ways.  When your reader mentions acceptance he/she is in line with the teachings of mindfulness practices that began thousands of years ago and continue to be validated by ongoing scientific research.  The Buddhist tradition explains that, in this life, it is inevitable that at times we will come in contact with that which we do not want (such as the death of a loved one) and at times we will fail to have contact with that which we do want (such as being rejected for a job).  Of course, the opposite is also true.  The point is that we do not have total control over circumstances beyond ourselves.  However, we do have control over our reaction to external occurrences.  By struggling against a negative experience we actually increase our suffering but by practicing acceptance of things such as they are and without imputing additional qualities of suffering we minimize our suffering. 
    But acceptance of reality as it is in each moment of our experience need not imply resignation or apathy.  By actively seeking to know ourselves more fully and accurately we may indeed be able to make choices that bring us into contact with that which we do want (such as increased physical vitality) or that keep us from coming in to contact with that which we do not want (such as obesity-related diseases).  The realizations and information yielded in this process might even help others to find greater happiness or reduce their suffering by learning from our detailed quantification and analysis. 
    Both approaches are valid and have merits.  The difficulty lies in knowing when to apply one, the other, or both.  There’s an art to it, or rather, a knack, just as in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.  😉
    Thanks for the thought-provoking post,

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