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Can We All Just Get Happy?

Ran Zilca of Happify breaks down “the science of happiness.”

Words by Carrie Neill, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

Twelve years ago, Ran Zilca was part of the research team at IBM working on Watson—the supercomputer built to answer questions posed in natural language, that would go on to beat longtime Jeopardy champ Ken Jennings at his own game. The team investigated language and speech patterns, and started looking at different projects related to identity. Eventually, they began toying with the idea that you could identify someone by their psychological profile. Zilca started studying the tools psychologists were using to “model people,” including personality assessments and other tests. He was astonished, he says, to discover how quantitative behavioral science had become. In part it was that realization that led him to believe you could use quantitative analysis to try to model something like happiness.

“If you think about psychology as a general model of the way people interact with their environment, then the notion of trying to model happiness doesn’t seem that far out,” Zilca says.

Today, Zilca is the Chief Data-Science Officer at Happify, a start-up based on the “science of happiness.” The central product is an app built around a series of activities and games, all designed to help people develop skills that Happify’s research shows will improve their emotional well-being. The company, which has co-published its findings about happiness with research institutions like The University of Pennsylvania, boasts a board of advisors full of clinical psychologists, behavioral scientists, and even authors like Gretchen Rubin, known for her bestselling book “The Happiness Project.”

While Happify’s data is mainly quantitative (though Zilca says it's a mix of “structured and unstructured”), Zilca’s own journey has included quite a bit of informal and personal qualitative research, including a 6,000 mile motorcycle trek across the country. During the ride, Zilca sought out experts (in both research labs and spiritual centers) and strangers alike to ask them about their personal life philosophies and what happiness meant to them. He documented the trip for a book, “Ride of Your Life,” which emerged, he says, as a kind of practical happiness guide.

dscout sat down with Zilca to talk about what makes us happy—and what doesn't.

dscout: Happiness is such a loaded topic! How do you approach talking to people about happiness? Even in our daily lives, with friends and family, asking someone “are you happy?” rarely yields a simple answer.

Ran Zilca: “Are you happy?” is a really difficult question to answer. It’s too abstract for most people. What you really need to do is break the concept down, break out the different facets that contribute to it. A lot of people think of happiness as something that’s rooted only in psychology. But there are actually a lot of different perspectives you can take into consideration. Dr. James Pennebaker, head of the psychology department at the University of Texas in Austin, suggests “taking your life pulse,” and really measuring the different aspects of your life. One way to do that is to look at the spectrum of positive emotions you experience, from feeling excited to feeling inspired because you’re immersed in an activity you feel is meaningful. Noticing how often you feel those emotions is one aspect that you can measure. The other major element, which tends to vary, is looking at people’s subjective levels of satisfaction with their lives—their work lives, social lives, and so on. When you map it out this way, you start to get a pretty good picture of how happy you are, and more specifically, what are the gaps? What do you need to fill in so that you can feel more satisfied than you do now?

Your own happiness journey resulted in something pretty dramatic: a 6,000 mile solo motorcycle ride across the country, which you turned into a book called Ride of Your Life. It was obviously a very personal journey for you, but you got a chance to speak with a lot of other people while you were on the road, both people you already knew, and those you sort of stumbled upon.

Absolutely. It was certainly a midlife transition for me personally. But it also came at a time when I was already five years into being in this domain, in this intersection of behavior change and happiness and psychology and technology. I’d already had a chance to work with so many of these terrific luminaries in the scientific community, but there’s a difference between working on an app and business with someone, and sitting down and asking them what they think about the meaning of life. In a lot of ways, having all of these conversations with people, both those that I already knew and those I would meet out on the road, that was the qualitative part of the research journey for me personally.

But isn’t happiness subjective? How can the same approach make sense for everyone?

Well, it’s not the same approach for everyone: it’s customized for each user. And we have very unique data. We ask people about the things they appreciate in life. What they want long-term. What their values are. And we have self-reported happiness levels, from people taking the happiness assessment app over time. So from that data we can start to predict what kind of exercises certain people should take to become happier. And just in general what makes people happier.

People who are empathetic to others tend to be happier.

Ran Zilca

Broadly speaking, we know that happiness tends to result from a few things. There are behaviors, pro-social skills, that, for the vast majority of people, make them happier. Empathy, for instance, we know is good for happiness. People who are empathetic to others tend to be happier. You can’t just ask someone to exhibit empathy on demand, because it obviously has to do with the way they think and feel toward others. But, having an empathetic attitude is a skill, and one you can build over time. And what we’ve found is that the staying power of happiness comes from the ability to establish skills like that. That’s essentially the Happify model, helping people develop those skills, and a more methodical approach to evaluating those elements in your life.

Generally we all have an unorganized way that we attempt to do this kind of modelling ourselves. You have a bad day, and the next day is a good day, you try to figure out what was different. If you only look at two days or three days, it’s really a very poor way to try and model the relationship. It’s much easier to look at the patterns that surface, and to utilize those to tell you what kind of behavior is more likely to make you happier, or likely to make you less happy. We’ve seen improvement that’s equivalent to alleviating or removing symptoms of depression for some people, with usage that’s equivalent to a couple of hours of time.

You’ve done a number of studies on millennials, and found that they’re generally pretty anxious and stressed out, and that they think about work too much. There’s such a huge movement in the corporate world right now to figure out how to best cater to millennials—but the Happify data suggests that a lot of companies may be going about it the wrong way.

There are so many different perspectives when people think about millennials, and so many terms and explanations that have come from older generations: the quarter-life crisis, “Adulting,” perpetual adolescence and pretend adulthood. They’re all sort of attempting to provide some explanation to the challenge that we know young people are having, in life and in the workplace in general.

When we set out to try to explore these issues, we took a much simpler approach. We asked millennials three questions: what they were grateful for, what their long-term goals were, and what their short term-goals were. And what we found, ultimately, is that a perfect day in the life of a millennial goes something like this: You wake up after a very good night’s sleep. You’re fully rested. You stay in bed a little bit, you’re not rushing, and you get some kind of snuggle time. You get to work quickly and your commute is stress-free, so it’s short and you’re not anxious about getting to work. You come to work and you see some friendly faces, and then you open your to-do list and it’s super, super organized. Exactly what is expected of you. The tasks are very clear, the deadlines are clear. And you just go head down and start working. And then you go to a group exercise like a yoga class and you expect work will just let you leave on time so that you can get there, because that’s super important to you. And then you go back home and have some alone time, and maybe you can reflect on your day, write in your journal, or maybe even just wind down and watch a little Netflix.

Now, you may say, well, that sounds like a great day for anyone. But think about what’s not in there: having impact, or moving up the ladder, or learning new skills or being a part of something greater than yourself. None of those things are in there. And a lot of workplaces are trying to make millennials happier by offering those things—when we’re hearing those aren’t the things ultimately making them happier. Whereas, if an employer could give them just a little bit of flexible time, tell them to come later to work so they’ll have a stress-free commute, and make sure that their tasks are clear, then you’ll have a perfectly happy employee. At least that’s what the data is saying.  

It’s interesting that those bigger picture elements—having an impact, being part of something greater, or learning something new—aren’t part of that. Because traditionally, that’s what a lot of people think about as being inspiring. What do you make of that? Do millennials not want those things, or do they just not associate them with daily life and daily routine?

Well, this is interpretation, of course, and it’s not in the data. But you know, in today’s reality, it may make a lot of sense to start your career this way. You have to remember, people change over time. With this study, we’re looking at people 25 to 34. Today, people are getting married and having children at older ages, so many of the people in that age bracket are single. If you’re single, and thinking about your future career and how you want to start it, this may be a perfectly reasonable way to think about it. It’s very down to earth. You want to have a life. I think that’s actually a very good thing that young individuals today understand that work is work, but they need to have a life. That they need to have yoga, or take a class, or do whatever it is they do outside of the office, because if they don’t, they only work and they don’t live.

Personally, (and very far from judging what surfaces from the data), I think it’s probably a reflection of the environment we live in today. Every generation looks at the generation before. And this generation may have seen their parents work very, very hard and not really have a life. And they may be asking themselves if that’s the right way to go about life. And in all honesty, it probably isn’t.

Being on the road was very meditative, more elemental than intellectual—I was literally winding down roads for hundreds and hundreds of miles. You find yourself hungry for the opportunity to help other people. Every car that’s stuck on the side of the road, every person you see and you think, maybe this person needs directions. You want to help as much as you can. In part its so you don’t feel isolated, but ultimately it’s really powerful. To try on a daily basis to be this person whose purpose is to identify other people who need something. Advice, five minutes of your time, a shoulder to cry on. And people are often really surprised by it, when you genuinely try to help them.

Ran on his bike during the cross-country journey that inspired his book, “Ride of Your Life”

Was there anything that surprised you, engaging with these random strangers that you’d meet out on the road? You mentioned that this trip was almost like a qualitative research journey, and it seems like, in addition to learning quite a bit about yourself, you learned quite a bit about others.

One of the things that astounds me about people is how if you have a conversation with someone that’s longer than two or three minutes, you’ll inevitably discover that they have very strong aspirations or things they want to do. And nine out of ten times, their aspirations seem to you like they’re completely attainable—but to them, they feel very hard to attain. It’s fascinating, because it feels almost like everyone, the entire human race, is constantly at the cusp of achieving their innermost dreams. And it just takes a little push to put people over.

I met one guy at a gas station in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It was raining when I got there, so I stopped and had lunch, and we talked for an hour. He was a young guy, an Arab-American living in an Arab-American community, and he was completely dedicated to his community, and really passionate about helping people and becoming a teacher.

“His name is Omar. When he was three years old, his family moved to the US from Saudi Arabia and settled in an Arab-American neighborhood close by. Even though he grew up in the country, Omar says that he always felt like an outsider, and he hopes that his young son’s experience will be different than his own. His dream is to write a book that will help young American Arabs bring together their ethnic and national identities and open a door for them into American society. His current job, working shifts in gas stations, earns him enough to save for college, so that sometime in the future, he can get the education he needs to start writing his book. Sitting behind the counter today, Omar is, in fact, in the midst of chasing his dream. One can see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice. He is on fire.”
[excerpt from "Ride of Your Life"]

He had so much energy and passion, and it’s so captivating and contagious to get caught up in someone’s energy like that. I think that’s the thing that fascinates me the most about people.

Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.

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