What Makes Us Happy (In the Moment)?

by | Feb 16, 2023


Determining what makes us happy is complex. Short-term unpleasantness (like studying for an exam) can lead to long-term satisfaction (being better educated or getting a degree). But life is a string of moments, so knowing what makes people happy in the moment is worthwhile. This is what a pair of Harvard psychologists sought to answer in a groundbreaking study.

The study of 2,250 adults used the technique of “experience sampling,” which involved having an iPhone app ping participants periodically and ask them three questions:

  1. A happiness question: “How are you feeling right now?” answered on a continuous sliding scale from very bad (0) to very good (100),
  2. An activity question: “What are you doing right now?”, and
  3. A mind-wandering question: “Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?” answered with one of four options: no; yes, something pleasant; yes, something neutral; or yes, something unpleasant.

Here’s a chart of the results (the bubble area indicates the frequency of occurrence):


A few interesting things about the results:

  • Making love scored the highest but had a small bubble, meaning it’s not a frequent activity.
  • Most people don’t like working very much.
  • Commuting also isn’t very fun. (So, why do so many people choose to have a commute? Check out this IFOD: The Commuting Paradox.)
  • This study was published in 2010 using data from prior years before social media exploded. I wonder where social media use would rank? Probably pretty low.

The most telling result from this study is how much our minds wander (47% of the time). One of the researchers, Daniel Gilbert, stated in the NY Times, “I find it kind of weird now to look down a crowded street and realize that half the people aren’t really there.”

Plus, most of our mind wandering results in less happy states. Participants reported unpleasant mind wandering 26.5% of the time and neutral wandering 31% of the time, (both scoring at 60 or below). Thus, a wandering mind is often an unhappy mind (which is the study’s title).

Dr. Gilbert further noted, “If you ask people to imagine winning the lottery, they typically talk about the things they would do — ‘I’d go to Italy, I’d buy a boat, I’d lay on the beach’ — and they rarely mention the things they would think. But our data suggest that the location of the body is much less important than the location of the mind, and that the former has surprisingly little influence on the latter. The heart goes where the head takes it, and neither cares much about the whereabouts of the feet.”

This result — that our wondering minds often turn to negative thoughts — is consistent with another study from researchers at UVA that found that “many participants preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left along with their thoughts.” You can read more about this fascinating study in this IFOD: We’d Rather Be Administered an Electric Shock Than Be Alone With Our Thoughts.


  1. There is an article about a town in Pennsylvania that was comprised mainly of Italian immigrants. Everyone was happy due to the overwhelming sense of community and friendliness. There was 0 evidence of cancer in the community for a generation. Maybe it is all about friends and family.

  2. I think happiness is a state of mind that is largely affected by lifestyle and the people we associate with. people that make a large number of finds and stay in touch with theme thru out their life are more likely to say they are happy!


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