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How’s life? Mapping Happiness

NYC Happiness heatmap - onehappybird.com

Where is the happiest place in New York?

by Hans Pul

Where is the happiest place in New York? The above diagram maps “happiness” in the city based on the content of geotagged tweets. The diagram is structured according Manhattan’s grid, where red blocks represent “happy tweets”, while blueish blocks indicate a lower grade of happiness. It was created by researchers of the University of Vermont and is part of a fascinating post (read it, it makes you happy).

After the break I will introduce “Mappiness”, an iPhone app designed to collect data about how happy people are, taking into account their activities, the people they are with and the type of environment they’re in.

Mappiness logo

The Mappiness app was developed by George MacKerron and Susana Mourato. Currently over 48.000 users in the UK contribute to the project.

So how does it work? Participants receive a few requests a day to take a 30-second survey, in which they indicate how happy, relaxed and awake they are, what they are doing and with whom, and in what type of environment they are. Data are uploaded to the Mappiness server, where additional info is added on the basis of the location of the phone, such as weather details. These crowd-sourced data are then imported into a database, on the basis of which the factors affecting happiness can be analysed.

Mappiness: diagram from the TED talk

Mean UK 'Happy' response, scaled 0-100, during the 2009-09-13 - 2011-01-17 period.

Essentially, Mappiness maps happiness across time and space. MacKerron hopes to identify how surroundings, people and activities affect happiness. On the other hand, he also aims to find out the temporal fluctuations of experienced happiness. Based on preliminary results George MacKerron concludes that:

  • Saturday is the happiest day of the week, while Tuesday is the least happy one;
  • Blue Monday (“the most depressing day of the year” on the third Monday of January) seems to be a bit of a myth;
  • Parks make people happy (even when statistically controlled for activities, weather conditions etc.).

The video below includes more interesting findings, as well as details on the method and its value as a scientific tool.

In sciences, happiness has traditionally been a research topic in psychology. However, in recent years happiness and emotions have started to attracted a lot of attention from geographers. This is known as the ‘emotional turn in geography’. Learn more about this topic by reading the introductory chapter (pdf) of the book Emotional Geographies (2007).

I think the research of MacKerron is interesting and valuable, despite the many methodological issues that can be raised (Can happiness be measured using one-dimensional scales? Would qualitative data reshuffle the produced insights?). Especially the incorporation of people by providing them with an easy-to-use app results in valuable longitudinal data which is valuable to geographers and psychologists. Also, by investigating people on random moments during the day, the “recall bias” that affects many studies is largely eliminated.

OECD report on Happiness

Percentage of people reporting more positive than negative emotion in one typical day, 2010 - from the OECD report "How's life? Measuring well-being"

In addition to comparative studies including local environmental characteristics and people’s activities, well-being is also examined in studies comparing different countries. In the 2011 report “How’s life? Measuring well-being” the OECD investigated how happy the inhabitants of its (mainly western) member states are. The above graph visualises the main results. On the OECD website, one can play with an interactive graph that takes in account other aspects of what represents Quality of Life.

If you live in the UK, you can start contributing to the Mappiness project by downloading the app.

Mappiness app

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