Can an App Make You Happy?

When a team set out to map the UK's happiness they didn't expect that users would report their mood improving as well...
24 September 2013

Interview with 

George MacKerron, University of Sussex


Now with the projects we've heard about so far, the scientists get the data but whatOld mando you at home get?

Well you could get happy!  Mappiness is a project to track happiness across the country; but when Chris Smith spoke to creator George MacKerron, from the University of Sussex, he said there's also a feel-good benefit for the participants...

George - Mappiness is a project that's interested in mapping people's happiness in relation to other elements of their environment and it does that with an iPhone app that people download for free. They get beeped twice a day, much like getting a text message, and then we ask them questions about how they feel, who they're with, what they're doing. It takes about 20 seconds. Then because we get the GPS coordinates from the phone, we can also join that with various kinds of information about the environment they're in, weather, land cover, habitat type, air pollution levels, and so on, and build really detailed models of what it is that contribute to people's happiness.

Chris - What sorts of questions are you able to ask doing this that you couldn't have done with a traditional scientific study before the age of the Smartphone and citizen science?

George - The questions that we ask are fairly simple. You could ask those in traditional ways, but the beauty of this is that we manage to reach a lot of people on a lot of occasions affordably. And that we get an objective measure of where they are, so that we can then add in objective information about the environment. So in the past, you might have relied on saying, 'Well, how happy do you feel, and is the environment where you are nice?' But unfortunately, those things might be correlated just because optimistic people say they're happy and they say that they're in a nice environment. And therefore, the relationship is less convincing.

Chris - What about the recruitment process because you're automatically selecting for an audience subset, aren't you? They've got to be people who own a certain species of phone. You're using iPhones. Therefore, they might be a certain subset of the population who are rich enough to do that, who are young enough to operate one, and also, motivated.

George - Yes, that's absolutely true. If there's one biggest limitation of this study, that's probably it. I think how much that matters depends on what question you're interested in. So, if you're mainly interested in income, it might be a big problem that you don't have anyone on very low incomes. So, it is true that our sample are richer and better educated, and younger than the average person. I think that problem will get less over time as more and more people have smartphones, and hopefully, if we're able to support a wider range of smartphones and maybe some cheaper ones too.

The self selection issue is also interesting, but we do try to make sure that we don't kind of say, "Are you a person who loves green space? Then sign up to Mappiness."  We don't talk a lot about our hypotheses during the study or when we sign people up. And so, we hope that we're not getting too biased from that. But as I say, that is the biggest limitation with this. But it's also how we're able to reach enough people that we can say something meaningful about the hypotheses that we have.

Chris - How many people are taking part?

George - From day to day, we have about a thousand people I think at this point and the number that we've had over the course of the study which has been running for about 3 years now is getting towards 60,000.

Chris -  That's a stupendous number, isn't it? So, what sorts of trends are emerging? What are you finding?

George - Our main piece of published research that's come out so far says that, as you might expect, people are significantly happier in natural environments than they are in cities. And that's after we control for other things that might go along with being a natural environment such as, it being a nice weather, it being a weekend. And you might say, "We knew that already. Everyone knows that green space is nice." But I think the key thing here is to be able to put really hard numbers on it. And so, to prove statistically that that's the case, and also to say, "Well, how big is that effect?" We can say actually that the size of that effect is very much on a par with other things that you would to expect make people happy such as being with friends or say, watching television rather than doing the washing up.

Chris - So, are there any bits of Britain that you can say, those are real hotspots for being really, really happy or conversely, maybe being less happy?

George - When we split up the country then we find that some places in the far north of Scotland seem particularly happy and that's true if we include only people who live there and not people who might be visiting. We found that generally, Slough comes bottom which is almost too intuitive in a way, given that there were programmes making Slough happy and so on. The problem generally with doing this is what geographers call a modifiable areal unit problem. So, if you cut the country into different kinds of slices, you might get different answers and that's why we haven't published the happiness map so far which would be an obvious thing to do otherwise for project called Mappiness.

Chris - Most scientists say that a very big proportion of the cost of doing research like this originally was the data collection. You're passing that burden onto the people who take part in the study. What are they getting out of it in return?

George - There's potentially an altruistic motivation where people like to be contributing to research that might have results that are of social value. But of course, there is also an individual motivation, to get some really detailed information about your own happiness so you can look graphs, you can download maps. And so, people get that data back and to some people, that's really valuable. Actually, I just think that being asked to think about your happiness even if you never download the data, does make people more aware of how they feel and potentially also over time, puts them in a better mood.

Chris - I think those pretty robust data that shows that if you do that, you do enjoy more well-being if you're asked to focus on the things that you're happy about.

George - That's right. And in fact, that's certainly what we find. It's important in fact, say, we're trying to look at trends across the whole country. It is very important that we control for how long people have been taking part at any given moment. Obviously, as the study goes on, more people have been taking part for longer. Otherwise, we get misled by the fact that people who have been taking part for longer report happiness that's significantly higher than people who've been taking part for a short period. There may also be an element where people get more fed up with the study over time. Therefore, when they've been taking part for a long period, most of the time, they're not very willing to take part - only when they're in a good mood will they give us a response. But I certainly hope and as you say, existing evidence would seem to indicate that the people will be happy over time from taking part in this sort of study.


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