“The outline of your future path already exists, for you created its pattern by your past.”
Everyday I look at the numbers. Nestled between the digits and decimals of the daily reports I read as a web analyst are patterns that describe how people are interacting with the various web pages of Martha Stewart’s media empire. Using Adobe Analytics, a few spreadsheets, and some curiosity, I’m able to isolate and test all the different elements that combine to build our various websites. I can then compare the effectiveness of design and content changes that are made regularly so that we can ultimately optimize for our desired outcome. In this role, I’m constantly studying and measuring how users interact with our piece of the web in order to understand how we can help them use it better.
It’s timely that I become more savvy with data analysis, as the demand for the skillset is growing at a staggering rate. Headlines about wearable technology, discussion around “The Internet of Things,” and an ever-accelerating race to equip ourselves with the latest gadgets are an increasingly common part of modern life. The explosive growth of this previously niche market over the past few years shows that we’re both eager and willing to use persistent technology to improve our own habits and behaviors. Though the implications of a hyper-connected and tracked society are still being debated (especially in light of Edward Snowden’s chilling expose on the glaring issues that exist around data privacy), the possibility to better understand ourselves using tools like smart watches or AR glasses will continue to evolve in an increasingly granular capacity. By measuring and recording behavior patterns over time, we can gain a clearer picture of ourselves and are better able to recognize the things that we want to change.
Running concurrent to this gadget arms race, I’ve also observed a growing consciousness in Western culture around the introspective practice of mindfulness and its positive effect on the body and mind. Research is emerging from America’s top academic institutions such as Brown, Harvard, and UCLA that supports the notion that “the practice of mindfulness leads to decreases in stress and anxiety, improvements in concentration and attention, and increases in self-awareness and overall emotional well-being.” By paying more attention to our inner thoughts and feelings we’re starting to see perceptible dividends in greater levels of health and well-being.
After recently experiencing some personal hardship I’ve begun to develop an experiment that attempts to combine the science of data analytics with the art of meditative mindfulness in hopes to uncover insights and trends around my own sense of well-being. Just like proponents of the FitBit or Jawbone UP band might use the technology to reinforce healthier physical behavior, this project attempts to track and reinforce positive emotional practices. While brainstorming ways to quantify emotions (typically an inherently gooey and qualitative school of thought), I stumbled across Ryff’s Psychological Well-Being Scale (PWB), a widely used and tested “self-report instrument that yields scores for explanatory style of bad events and for good events” by using three pairs of polar dimensions of well-being: internal vs. external, stable vs. unstable, and global vs. specific causes. This test consists of ranked statements (from “Strongly Agree to “Strongly Disagree) that empirically measure one’s inner attitudes which then group into 6 themes: autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relations with others, purpose in life, and self-acceptance. Tracking the level of these themes over time and combining them with a series of longer-form (and qualitative) journal entries, I hope to draw causal links between my daily activities (which will be captured in the journal) and the areas of well-being that they affect. I expect that I’ll confirm some predictable patterns like a rise in overall satisfaction when I exercise or spend time with friends, but I’m curious to see what else I find.
To build and take the test I’ll use Google Forms to collect my completed Ryff’s PWB and journal entry, and then track my results to look for emerging patterns. I’m going into this experiment with the hopes to find the best way of “cheering myself up” and possibly find some guidance for getting through emotionally difficult circumstances in the future. In the way that Malcolm Gladwell argues that around 10,000 hours of practice is required on average to master a skill, I’m seeking to quantify the amount of time undergoing different experiences that are required to raise my various feelings of satisfaction. Could the fastest way to feel better about personal growth be tied to 5 weekly hours of volunteering time with altruistic projects? Does an increasing sense of purpose in life spike after spending an afternoon planning a travel adventure? How will my perceived level of responsibility at work affect my feelings of self-acceptance throughout my career? How does the consistent variable of time affect the statistical weight of the others? Is there such thing as a personalized algorithm for maximum happiness? By creating a dashboard for my own life experience I expect to gain greater insight and control into my own well-being.
I’ll also be interested to see how the different areas of well-being ebb and flow in relation to each other and if there are any that consistently rise and fall together. For example, if the data shows that feelings of autonomy and positive relations with others fluctuate together at similar rates, could one use a little bit of emotional hacking to focus on daily activities in one area that are easier to complete in order to raise well-being levels across the board? A large caveat with this project is that without an immense sample size I would likely only be able to apply the findings to myself as everyone behaves and feels differently. But with some scale and a larger data set perhaps we’d start to see repeating patterns that unite certain demographics, lifestyles, or geographic areas of the country. These patterns could have an impact on understanding the methodology that different people in different cultures use to better themselves.
We’re often unaware of the habits that we’re in because we do a poor job at recollecting all of the small fleeting moments that comprise each day. As Americans, we do an even worse job at turning towards our inner selves to find the root causes of what make us feel and behave the way that we do. As the 54th most stressed out country on the earth we’ve created a self-help industry worth over $11 billion that can’t meet our insatiable appetite for outside guidance. With a little creativity and a borrowed page from the tech world, I hope to disrupt some pop psychology and turn my own mindful metrics into actionable insights in order to build an intuitive, responsive, and fulfilling life. By plugging into myself I’m sure to find the fastest way to recharge.