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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