I had the pleasure of interviewing Hugo Huyer, blogger at Tracking Happiness. Hugo is a “happiness nut” from the Netherlands. By tracking his happiness every day, he’s able to constantly see how certain periods or events influence his happiness. After seeing how powerful tracking happiness was, he started Tracking Happiness, a website where people can get inspired and take control of their own happiness based on actionable tips and examples. In this interview, he shares with us his top secrets for crafting a life full of meaning and happiness.
Thank you for your willingness to share your experience with us. Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?
I consider myself a data nerd, a happiness fanatic and someone who is always looking to improve. I’ve been working for almost 6 years as an engineer here in the Netherlands, while slowly building Tracking Happiness on the side. When I had just turned 20 years old, I started writing a “happiness journal.” I figured my life was about to transform and I wanted to make sure that I was in control of the things that were going to happen.
Tracking Happiness is something that I’m extremely passionate about. Receiving positive comments and emails from my readers is one of the things that make me extremely happy. What else makes me happy? I love researching and writing a good article on a Sunday morning. When the weather is good enough, I like going outside for a long run or walk. And more recently, I’m rewatching Game of Thrones with my girlfriend, which is still as good as the first time I saw it.
You’ve reached over a million readers with your research on happiness, not to mention your private clients. What do you find is the most common thing keeping people from “the good life?”
What I see most often is that unhappy people generally feel less in control of their life. This is supported by a survey I ran under 1,200 of our readers, where unhappy people are more likely to state that happiness is not within their control.
But more often than not, this is because we don’t yet realize how much influence we have over our own actions and the consequences they bring. Unhappy people usually feel like they are being spectators of their life. In my opinion, this is the biggest thing keeping people from a happy life.
So you created a worksheet that tracks happiness levels. How did you get this idea?
Some people love the feeling of writing words on paper. This is one of the biggest charms of journaling for some.
But if you’re a data nerd as I am, then you may get warm and fuzzy feelings from seeing data appear in a chart instead! That’s why I created a tracking happiness worksheet. This sheet structures your daily data in columns, and creates visual representations of your data in return. I’m constantly developing this idea, but at this moment, you can already see how often certain factors influence your happiness.
One of many funny examples: This worksheet has shown me that I’m feeling more stressed at the end of the week as opposed to the start of the week. This is the influence that my engineering job has on me, that’s clearly visible throughout the worksheet.
Don’t be disappointed if this digital worksheet isn’t your jam. Tracking happiness the old school way (in a journal) is just as efficient!
How does it work to track happiness? What would a typical entry look like?
It’s as simple as it sounds, really. Grab an empty notebook, or open a blank Word document, and start writing. Just write whatever’s on your mind. How has your day been? What did you like about today?
What I’m describing right now is journaling. It turns out that tracking happiness is 99% similar to journaling, but adds an extra dimension. At the end of the day, you need to ask yourself 3 things:
- How happy was I on a scale from 1 to 10?
- What factors made me happy today?
- What factors made me unhappy today?
By simply answering these questions, you’ll be able to build a personal database of the things that you like and don’t like. By reflecting on your happiness journal at the end of the month, you’ll see what works and what doesn’t. This sounds super simple, and you might wonder why you need a journal for this in the first place.
That’s because we humans are pretty bad at remembering how we felt emotionally at certain times in our lives. Our brain starts to romanticize events as soon as they are in the past. By simply tracking your happiness, you’ll be able to address issues to your future self with written proof. This allows your future self to steer your life in a happier direction.
What if someone has really terrible happiness ratings? Won’t it discourage them to see the actual numbers quantifying their level of misery?
It might. Just like journaling, tracking happiness might not work for everyone. It’s not without a reason that there are dozens of articles floating around online that claim that “people who are chasing happiness will not be happy.” Even though these are really just click-baity titles, there is some truth to this.
Some people won’t benefit from tracking happiness, and that’s perfectly fine. What I’ve learned, however, is that most people see the potential and find it really valuable. If you’re open to taking control of your own life, you’ll see your own happiness ratings for what they are: positive feedback.
By giving yourself this feedback – in the form of happiness ratings and factors – you’re giving yourself the opportunity to take action. So if you have a streak of really bad days with terrible happiness ratings (I’ve been there), you have at least given yourself the tools to correctly deal with this situation.
How does self-awareness help a person seeking for a deeper sense of meaning and happiness?
In my opinion, people who are not self aware are generally the same people who believe that happiness is not within our control.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t think we can control 100% of our happiness. But I do believe we can at least understand 100% of our happiness.
And you need a bit of self awareness for this. By being self aware, you can recognize how certain things affect your mental state of mind. By recognizing this, we are able to leap to a higher sense of awareness, where we can consciously control how we react to certain things.
One of the simplest examples I have for this is to imagine if you’re in busy traffic. You’re going to be late for an appointment. Someone who is not self aware will get mad and starts to curse the world. For this person, it certainly seems that happiness is not within his or her control.
Now, if the same happens to a person that has a level of self awareness, this person will recognize that there is absolutely nothing that can be done about the busy traffic. The cards have already been dealt, but this person can at least decide on what to do with the situation.
So instead of cursing the world, this person can decide to focus his energy on positive things instead. For example, you can give a good friend a phone call, or you can sing along to your favorite song. It’s simple things like this that can determine the difference between a miserable and happy day.
You’ve gone through a long journey of tracking your own happiness over the years, and you’ve shared candidly on your site about the ups and downs. Did you feel like tracking your happiness was a way to detach and gain enough mental distance to sort through your experiences?
Great question. In a way, yes, tracking my happiness allows me to detach myself from my emotions.
One of the most powerful side-effects of tracking happiness (and journaling in general) is that writing down words, feelings and emotions allows you to forget about them. You’ve stored them somewhere safe, you’ve given these thoughts a place, and now you can let it go.
Think of it as clearing the RAM memory of your computer. At the end of the day, your short term memory is completely filled with whatever has happened. After you’ve written everything down, and how the events of the day have influenced your happiness, you can safely forget about all of it. You can clear your RAM, and start a new day afresh.
Then, when re-reading your happiness tracking a week later, you’ll read about everything that influenced you without feeling emotionally attached anymore.
This especially helps during unhappy times, which I’ve experienced more than enough! For example:
- My girlfriend and I reached a tipping point during a long-distance relationship period, which I now call “Relationship hell”.
- I got assigned to a project abroad in Russia, where I encountered the worst stress I’ve ever experienced.
Writing about these things – and rereading them later – has taught me an incredible amount about myself. This knowledge – or self awareness if you will – helps me navigate the rest of my life and deal with the daily struggles that I’ll encounter for the rest of my life.
Journaling through the unhappy times is extremely powerful, and will help you steer your life in a happier direction in the future.
Your approach is unique because you have developed a program that actually quantifies happiness levels in a very data-driven, mathematical way. What did the data reveal about factors that contribute to positive well-being?
The data that we track by tracking our happiness is some of the most confidential data out there. So it doesn’t happen often that one of my readers is willing to share the data.
However, what I’ve learned above all is that each person is unique, which means that what makes that person happy is just as unique.
There is no universal formula of happiness, just as much as there is no single definition of happiness. This is again supported by the survey that we ran amongst our readers, where it is clear that no one thinks of happiness as exactly the same thing.
The results of this survey will be published in 2 months, but it’s already clear what factors contribute the most to mental health and well-being. Amongst the 1,200 respondents, the most votes went towards happiness factors that are related to:
- Family and friends
- Health and well-being
- Laughter and joy
There are a lot of people in the world who are suffering from a lack of meaning, purpose, and happiness in life. Based on your experience in tracking happiness, what is the most encouraging thing you would tell them?
A couple of things:
- You only live once.
- The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.
Recently, I was researching an article, and I came across this article about the most frequent deathbed regrets. It’s a fascinating story since it uncovers what most people regret the most as they are near the end of their lives. Here’s the gist of it:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
If you’re currently unhappy because you don’t live a life with purpose, then it’s time you take control of what you can and go look for the things that you’re currently missing.
If you’re missing hobbies and passions, make it a goal to try something new every week. If you hate your job, consider another career. If you’re unhappy with your social life, focus on building happy relationships.
Again, we can’t control 100% of our happiness, but we can at least understand all of it. By understanding our happiness, we are better equipped to control our happiness. Or at least, the parts that are within our control!
Let’s imagine that someone reads this interview and heads over to your site to download the tracking happiness worksheet. Is that all? Once they can view their own data over several months, what’s next?
Tracking happiness offers a platform for readers that are enthusiastic about their journey. So if you decide to start tracking your happiness, I would love to share your experiences on the website.
The reason why I started Tracking Happiness is to share and spread happiness around the world. How we’re doing that is by writing simple yet effective articles on case studies, research and happiness tips. If you feel like you have an interesting story to share with the rest of the world, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.