On-demand , context sensitive, personalized, unbroken happiness pill – data science or fiction?
When he was in the mood, my father would hold forth on why I should not associate ‘things’ with happiness. But when I was not in the mood, my mother would buy me a bar of chocolate and ask me if I was happy. I must confess that my father’s lectures made me feel like a good human being, made me gain a few inches in height. But it was the chocolate that made me happy.
Every time someone posts about Bhutan and Gross National Happiness (GNH), I get exposed to the same old conflict. Why do we have to see GNH and GDP as two opposing forces? Why does the apocryphal king who has to search for a happy man’s shirt, have to figure that the only happy man in the kingdom is shirtless?
While I was contemplating this piece, I looked up quotes on happiness and discovered that I was doomed. The world’s greatest minds agree with my father. And to add to that, I have to practice selfless love. Well, I am only human and I have figured that neither do I have any intentions of becoming a monk. Nor will I sell that Ferrari.
Share models of happiness and you get maximum likes on social media. But whose happiness?
All around, one keeps hearing about pillars and tenets and means to happiness. While I have the greatest respect for people who invest their time in the happiness space, this gets me wondering. Whose happiness?
Happiness, is an intensely personal, contextual emotion. True, there are common pillars and crutches that all of us need. But then, what we have is a generalised version of happiness, not a personal version.
For the single, happiness could be about meeting someone new. For the hitched, it could also be about meeting someone new. But both, are different happiness-es. Again, while a new smartphone can make me happy today, an excellent dessert could mean happiness after a fiery curry.
Happiness is a function of each individual’s temperamental construct, phase in life and context. Which is exactly why a formula for unbroken, personal happiness has remained elusive.
Look at ourselves. When I was 20, a holiday meant a whole lot of action with a whole lot of friends. Today, it could mean a quieter experience with someone dear. This of course, is the reason family holidays always end with people with shorter nails.
Imagine a family of 4. Dad, mum, 16ish daughter and 14-ish son. The father wants to chill with a beer when the mother wants to hit the spa when the son wants to go skiing when the daughter wants to go shopping. A sure recipe for a manicure for all.
So is a one-size fits all model for happiness… a possibility?
The incomplete happiness elephant.
Look, everybody has had a shot at defining the happiness elephant. And at the risk of getting stoned again, I believe that every attempt has viewed us as Nietzsche’s last men – alike, like herd animals, enjoying simple pleasures and mediocrity, claiming to have invented happiness. And blinking.
Religion (with multiple variations) tells us to shun and be happy. Epicurus tells us not to shun and be happy. Socialism tells us to share and be happy. Capitalism tells us not to share and be happy. Maslow tells us to self-actualise and be happy. And the Buddha tells us that it is the suffering of change. Well, so what is this animal in the drawing room?
The fact is that all of the above have contributed to happiness in their own ways. (And in many ways, our different ways to define happiness may be responsible for the semblance of order in the world we live in.) But what all of these have contributed to certain identifiable and generalised facets of happiness. But unbroken happiness? That accommodates your temperament, phase and context? If you ask me, technology is the answer.(Go ahead, stone me.)
Technology can near-complete the elephant!
Happiness technology is built for a culture that is premised on an algorithmic model of the self. For this we have to understand individuals as a bundle of inputs (data collection), algorithmic processes (data analysis), and outputs (data use). Objectively, the algorithmic self is no more (or less) than what it consumes and the content it creates; subjectively, it converts input resources into outputs of emotion.
Mathematicians and statisticians (and now every marketer) can predict and influence our behavior and preferences based on the content we create online and on social media’s likes, dislikes and opinions. Which can easily be converted into customised recommendations for individual delight.
A confluence of technologies for personalised happiness.
Today we do have the technologies to gauge, understand and deliver personalised happiness. I already have all the information I need about the individual, I have the technology to bucket preferences and contexts. Now if I marry pop psychology and a little philosophy to your need context, I have a formula for personalised happiness. For you.
The delivery mechanism, we already have. All of us already know that social networks can impact moods. Studies have shown that emotions themselves might spread online to generate large-scale simultaneous clusters of happy and unhappy individuals.
And every time I deliver your happiness pill via social media, you will reveal how you could be made happier. And I keep getting better at keeping you continually happy.
Is this then the holy grail for the happiness industry? Well, the jury is out on that. And so is the ethical committee. I will just say that this is not the whole elephant but it is the closest we have come to defining this mammoth in our drawing room.
Is the happiness pill street legal?
Now this is where the ethical committee comes in. And with reason. For I, as an analytics merchant, can manipulate this knowledge to influence behaviour (create happiness) and of course, purchase.
“I am kind of paranoid in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.” – J D Salinger.
Is it right to engineer happiness? It was not said in this context of course, but I really love Salinger’s quote, very apposite to this context. The moment we talk of Big Data, what comes to mind is Big Brother. War of the Worlds scared the few who were listening to radio at that point; but with Big Brother, Orwell has scared us for all eternity. He must be chuckling, now.
Will we be engineering happiness alone?
Or will it lead to what the occupiers of Wall Street fear – further accumulation in the hands of a few, now with the ability to keep the populace happy in the bargain? These are questions I have no answers to. I take recourse in Ockham’s les parsimoniae – the fewer the assumptions, the better.
Data can create continual happiness – with curated, personalised recommendations to connect with an individual’s contexts of mood and time. And this to me seems ‘the’ idea, as the fluctuating nature of the epistemology of happiness makes any one formula redundant.
Happiness has always been an industry, whatever -ism you call it by. With multiple and often fiercely-opposing prescriptions. But then again, theirs are formulae that you need to prescribe to, for happiness.
What we are on the cusp of, is exactly the opposite! My happiness formulae varies itself to suit the pill-popper’s subjective, contextual need. And everyone can have their own varying formulae!
This is the ultimate happiness pill (blue or pink or whatever), personalised to individual, mood and time. What man has been seeking all along – now brought to you by data sciences.
No mountains to climb.
Which brings us to the old man who sits patiently atop the mountain, waiting for seekers, including Hagar the Horrible, to clamber up to him to discover the sources and meaning of true happiness. Well, that old man now has a smartphone, with Big Data on cloud. And he can tell exactly what your recipe for happiness is. He knows that no one formula applies. He knows that Atul Jalan has been checking out the 1975 Porsche 911G but his wallet size can only accommodate a miniature.
But the old man also knows what else can make Atul Jalan happy. And what, can be delivered now. And he will. Without my having to climb any mountain.
If I have offended any old men atop mountains in the course of this note, apologies. And of course, to all who like my father, say ‘shun’. I do believe ‘things’ count. These are just the thoughts of someone whose pill is technology.