March: The Happiness Project as a Science Experiment with Health

A Brief Overview

For those who don’t know me, I’m a high school science teacher.  The relationship between happiness and health sounds like a brilliant science project waiting to happen.  So here’s my research question:  Will improving my health really make me happier?  The variables have been defined.  Independent variable: Amount of improvement in health.  Dependent variable: Amount of improvement in happiness.

How to Measure the Independent Variable

There are some things that make this challenging as a science project, though.  First of all, how does one measure health?  I’m planning on making changes to habits regarding exercise, sleep, dental hygiene, diet, and hydration.  That gives me five different independent variables, which is a big no-no for a science experiment.  How could I tell what was making me happier?  What if I think that eating breakfast is making me happier, when in reality it’s the extra sleep and I don’t realize it?

What I need is some way to measure overall improvement of health in a quantitative way that incorporates all of these factors.  So do I make an equation to find some average of all of these factors?  But what if one thing is making me happier than another?  What if sleep has a bigger impact than flossing, and I can’t come up with a system that gives each variable its proper weight?  How do I quantify health so that I can measure it?

The answer to that is to simplify my independent variable – I will make number of days what I measure. So for the whole of March, I will endeavor to perform perfectly.  Since I know I won’t (and probably cannot) do that, I will make a chart to track how well I’m doing, so that if I see blips in the correlation between overall contentment and time, I can check to see if I am making any errors that affect the data.

In this method of measure, I believe I’ll get more reliable results as to whether keeping lifestyle changes over time impacts happiness, but I must also keep in mind that it won’t be possible to tell for certain which habits are helpful.

How to Measure the Dependent Variable

And for that matter, how do I quantify happiness?  What is happiness, really?  It feels like I’m chasing a shadow with this project.  I’ll know when I’ve got it, but there may not be a particularly tangible result.  I won’t be able to open my hand and show someone else that I’ve got it the way you would a physical object.

During NPR’s TED Radio Hour podcast entitle “Simply Happy,” Matt Killingsworth discussed how he measured happiness using surveys texted to people at random times throughout the day.  I think I’m going to quantify happiness over the course of this project using his system of ratings at random moments throughout the day.  To do this, I will need to install some program onto my phone that will ask me at random times to rate my happiness.  I’ll rank my happiness each time this happens on a scale from 1 to 5 and watch for improvement as my number of healthy habits improves.

My Predictions and Hypothesis

Obviously, being unhealthy makes people unhappy.  I hate being in pain, or being sick, or even little things like feeling hungry or exhausted.  Those types of things clearly take a toll on our happiness, because they sap away all of the energy and motivation we have to do other things that make us happy.  At best we can ignore them and try not to let it make us less happy.

But what about if you’re someone who isn’t sick, who’s in reasonably good shape, and is living a relatively healthy (albeit somewhat sedentary) life?  For me, I rarely do any rigorous exercise, I eat fairly healthy and usually cook my own meals, I brush my teeth daily and floss a few times a week, I sleep between 7 and 8 hours at night, I drink about 2 glasses of water a day and “supplement” with Dr. Pepper and the occasional beer.  If I started a workout routine, ate better food and started eating breakfast, brushed my teeth twice a day and flossed daily, slept 8 to 9 hours at night and kept a regular bed time and waking time, and drank eight glasses of water a day,  would it really make me happier?

I think yes.  Multiples studies have shown for years that exercise increases endorphin flow to the brain, which provides an immediate boost in mood and helps many people manage stress.  We all know from experience that getting enough sleep makes us less cranky, and multiple studies, including several cited by researchers at Harvard University, show the same results.  This article from the University of Connecticut summarizes a study that shows a potential link between mild dehydration and mood.  I don’t think that mood itself is happiness, but I think that people who are in a good mood more often are probably generally happier people as well.

So this is my experiment for March. I’ll continue to post updates for how it’s going! 

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Ramblings: Losing Your Temper

I’ll admit it.  I lost my temper.  I cursed the driver’s name (although I don’t know it), her family, her car, her life, everything.  I feel like the next part of this post is my holy confession.  Hopefully my sins can be absolved.  (Sorry, I grew up Catholic, so bad attempts at Catholic humor are occasionally going to exist here.)

She cut me off going slower than me, sped up when I tried to go around her, slowed down again when she forced me to get behind her, and then slammed on her brakes.  So I laid on my horn and flipped her off.  In the heat of the moment I wished I could tell her exactly what her crimes were and how horrible of a human being she was for committing them.  I imagined every hateful thing I would say to her.  What was her problem?  It took me a while to cool down.

Now, I think that this is an excellent topic for one engaged in a Happiness Project.  Because while losing my temper and having my fit of rage made me feel better in the moment, I think that tendencies towards anger make people less happy and not more.  After I finally cooled down, I felt rotten to the core, like I had made myself a worse human being for getting so angry about this driver.

It’s so easy to become angry.  It’s difficult to stay calm.  But this is one of those places where the difficult path would probably cause a lot more happiness if followed.  I tried this morning.  It was so frustrating, thinking about putting aside my anger.  I couldn’t do it.  This might be something to consider working on during my happiness project.

Ramblings: Reading Autobiography

benfranklinduplessis

I have all of my areas made and ready to go, and now we wait.  March is in just one week and one day, so I’ll be making arrangements – buying a water bottle, finding a gym, and on and on.  But now that I’m waiting, I feel like I’m kind of in limbo.  Anyway, why wait until March to try finding happiness?  I’ll be starting my targeted efforts then, but in the meantime, I can still write on things that make me happy or that I’d like to try.

So here’s something I’ll do in the week leading up to March.  I’ve always wanted to read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography because he’s so interesting.  He accomplished so much in just one lifetime, and I would love to emulate that productivity.  The theme of this coming week will be sharing insights that I gain from his autobiography.  I’ll let you know how this goes.

March: Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

Because your body is the most important tool you have for exploring the world and living life.  Take care of it, and it has a much higher chance of serving you well.

In the month of March, the following are habits I will adopt to improve my health:

Create an exercise routine.

I hate physical activity.  I’ll admit it.  My fast metabolism has made me a very lucky lady, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not losing a lot of the health benefits that come along with getting exercising regularly.  I’m planning on joining my local gym and going three days each week for an hour each time.

Eat 3 meals a day.

Including breakfast.  This means I’m going to have to actually start stocking food items at my house.  Sometimes I get lazy and don’t remember to feed myself.  This seems like a great opportunity to try some new recipes, too!

Go to bed at 9 and wake up at 5, even on the weekends.

I think this one actually might be the easiest for me.  I’ve always been an early bird.

Drink more water.

Living in a desert increases the amount of water you should drink daily.  I like to “supplement” my water intake with soda.  I’m hoping that drinking more water will automatically mean I drink less soda.  One step I’ll take with this resolution is buying a quality water bottle.

Brush twice a day and floss once a day.

Right now, it’s more like brush in the morning, floss 4 times a week.  Which, I will say in my defense, is better than many who never floss at all.  The main culprit?  The lack of a strong bedtime routine, I think.  I want to create a bedtime routine that will help me relax and include teeth brushing.

Planning: Final Draft of my Plan and Commandments

I’ve decided that the sooner this is finalized, the better.  I start in March, and I want to get to planning exactly what each of my 12 areas entails before I actually begin my Happiness Project, so having my 12 areas finalized is a good first step.  The following is the plan I have come up with for my monthly focus:

  • March: Health
  • April: Slow Down
  • May: Home
  • June: Memories
  • July: Friends
  • August: Attitude
  • September: Work
  • October: Dreams
  • November: Love
  • December: Play
  • January: Money
  • February: Passion

I replaced “energy” with “love” because I want to use a month to focus on my romantic relationship, and because “energy” and “health” seem very similar to me.

I also rewrote some of my commandments and pared them down to eight.  Here is what I came up with.

  1. Give generously without expectations.
  2. Foster human connection.
  3. Allow yourself dreams – and then chase them.
  4. Own only what you can cherish.
  5. Do what you know is right.
  6. Act now without fear.
  7. Create something beautiful.
  8. Treasure the moment.

I like having slightly wordier commandments than a lot of the two- or three-word commandments I see others using because I want to be specific and set guidelines that I know how to follow.  I will probably choose one commandment per day to really focus on, and hope that that turns into reflecting on them habitually.

Planning: Another Ammendment

I decided to change another of my 12 areas. I would like to change Spirituality to Memories. I’m currently reading through Gretchen’s chapter on “Eternity” and understand now that for her, eternity didn’t mean going to heaven or anything with particularly religious undertones (thank goodness for me, because I grew up Catholic and while there were many good things about that, I don’t know that I’d go back.)

I want to take her idea, but rename it something more concrete, which is why I’m going with Memories. I think that during that month, I will start some habits that I always wished I could get into for the sake of looking back, but never was systematic enough to actually start.

For example, I don’t take pictures often enough, and even when I do, they sit on my phone and don’t give me any benefit. I also want to start journaling again. I used to be so good at it, and I stopped when my bedroom was no longer solely my own as I started college. It would be nice to record just the sweet moments from today so I could read them when I feel nostalgic for the good old days when I lived with one of my close friends in Tucson.

Ramblings: 2016

2016-neues-jahr

We all know about that number. Experts seem to agree, it was a shitshow of a year. I can’t deny that fact either, but when I look back at 2016, even though things in the world at large sucked, I can’t help but think that that was such a small part of my experience.

2015 was the worst year of my life, hands down. I took a difficult job in a city I hated, I left all of my friends behind and had trouble making new ones, I dumped my asshole of a fiancé (which while being a positive change, definitely hurt more than anything I’ve felt), I lost almost 30 pounds by basically starving myself while I sank into depression.

And then 2016 happened.

I started dating my current boyfriend, who by contrast with my ex – fiancé, shows no signs of being an asshole. I made the decision to move back home to Tucson and followed through, moved in with a close friend, rekindled my friendships with my classmates, and began teaching for a school I love.

So I’m hesitant to say I hate 2016 (sorry, John Oliver). But I will readily admit that the news over the last few months gives me great concern. I’m afraid of living in a country where half the people are saying don’t trust the government and the party in charge (which is normal), and the other half are saying don’t trust the media (less normal, but probably true on some level). Who do we trust?

But that’s beside the point. My point is, how much does one’s political climate affect happiness? I look at the news and feel hopeless. I read about families of people killed halfway across the world in bombings and cry. My personal 2016 was nice, and that allows me to escape into my own life (which feels so much more real), but there’s no denying that 2016 was a hard year for the world, and that must affect happiness in some way.

That’s it. I wish I had more answers. Maybe I’ll find them.