The Secret To Happiness

The American Dream tells us we are free to pursue happiness, but doesn’t give us instructions.  Even life-changing events such as winning the lottery have been shown (Brickman 1978) to only increase happiness in the short-term.

The secret to long term happiness is a concept that seems too sacred to be studied and dissected. However, many researchers devote themselves to this topic, and this paper by Sheldon and Lyubomirsky presents a nice theory about sustainable happiness.

This elusive goal is difficult, and may be impossible. Many past studies have shown that each person has a base level of happiness which they can only deviate from temporarily. Even more unfortunate, is that this base level of happiness is 50-80% inherited.

The researchers in this paper divided events that increase your well-being into: activity changes (intentional acts such as exercising) and circumstantial changes (such as being assigned a great roommate). They performed 3 studies on psychology students who had recently experienced an increase in well-being. These studies showed that sustainable happiness was only possible through activity changes. Intentional changes resulted in a bigger boost in happiness and more varied experiences.

After a period of time, those who experienced the increase in well-being because of an activity change retained their increase more than those who experienced the increase because of a circumstantial change. The ones who became happier by chance became accustomed to the change and were no longer affected by it.

There is no shortcut — effort and hard work are the best route to happiness.

Sheldon, K & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). Achieving sustainable gains in happiness: Change your actions, not your circumstances. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, 55 – 86. [PDF]

Edit by Jeff Huang

September 29, 2008 at 3:14 am 51 comments

Blowable User Interface

BLUI imageI just got back from presenting a paper at UIST, a conference that I would describe as a forum for innovative sexy user interfaces. One of the more original talks I attended was by a Georgia Tech student who managed to create a blowable interface on a standard laptop. He takes an ordinary laptop (with no hardware add-ons), blows on the screen, and the laptop identifies where he blew. Seems impossible?

How it works: when the screen is blown, it creates a bit of sound that the microphone picks up, Using a Fast Fourier Transform to create a vector of amplitudes and phase shifts, the system then matches a “blow” (as opposed to a click) with pre-classified vectors using k-nearest neighbor. The best vector match is used to determine where on the screen the user was blowing. During evaluation on a laptop, it was 100% accurate on a 3X3 grid, 95% accurate on a 4X4 grid, and quickly degraded after that. This is pretty good considering you’re blowing on a laptop screen.

One application of this would be birthday cards sent over email, where the recipient could blow out the candles. Or, even an electronic harmonica if the accuracy were improved.

Patel told me on a shuttle ride that he discovered this by accident one day while trying to blow dust off his screen with his sound recorder on.

Given that few people would actually perform the embarrassing act of blowing on their laptop while people were around, I’d give this 10/10 for originality and 4/10 for actual usefulness.


Patel, S & Abowd, G. (2007). BLUI: Low-cost Localized Blowable User Interfaces. Proceedings from UIST ’07: ACM Symposium on User interface Software and Technology, 217 – 220. [PDF]

October 24, 2007 at 7:13 pm 19 comments

Do Opposites Attract or Do People Look For Similar Partners?

“Opposites attract” is the common response when you see a contrasting couple — a tall woman and a short man, or a party person with a quiet introvert. Yet we all know couples who have the similar personalities — they like the same restaurants or are both neat freaks. So are people attracted to those unlike themselves to complement their personalities, or do people seek out a partner just like themselves because it’s positively reinforcing?

It turns out, neither hypothesis is true. A study of 36 couples found that there was no significant inter-personality similarity or differences. However, a two interesting findings emerged:

  1. People had partners who were similarly self-satisfied with themselves
  2. People’s perceptions of their partners were biased towards their ideal self

In other words, someone who was low self-esteem has a higher likelihood of having a partner with low self-esteem, while someone who is self-liking will look for a partner who also likes who they are. To elaborate on the second finding, there was no correlation between each individual partner’s personalities, but there was a correlation between a person’s ideal self-concept, and the perception they had of their partner. So if you aspire to be organized, you may believe that your partner is more organized than he or she really is.

Opposites Attract

Klohnen, E. C. & Mendelsohn, G. A. (1998). Partner Selection for Personality Characteristics: A Couple-Centered Approach. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24(3), 268-278.

August 25, 2007 at 7:35 pm 24 comments

Hard Drive Failure Statistics at Google

Statistics about hard drives from Google’s data centers were published in USENIX, showing how different variables affect the failure rate of hard drives. AFR is “Annual Failure Rate”.

The older drives may be failing more simply because they are a less advanced batch.

Low, medium, and high specify the usage.

Surprisingly, 35-45 degrees C is the sweet spot for hard drives. Colder temperatures actually cause them to fail more.

SMART will catch about half of hard disk failures before the happen, but many drives will fail without any warning.

Pinheiro, E., Weber, W., & Barroso, L. (2007). Failure Trends in a Large Disk Drive Population. Proceedings from FAST ’07: USENIX Conference on File and Storage Technologies, 5. [PDF]

August 9, 2007 at 8:40 pm 14 comments

Firstborns have higher IQs than their siblings

This short paper from Science reports tasty findings on the correlation between birth order and intelligence. While it’s generally accepted in the scientific community that older siblings generally have higher IQs due to different environmental influences, numerous possible factors make it tricky to prove causation from correlation. One criticism is that later siblings are likely to come from larger families, which relates to lower socioeconomic status and IQ.

A study of 241,310 Norwegians shows that sibling social order rather than biological factors is what causes the variation of intelligence in siblings. This study supports the popular confluence theory, which claims that intelligence is directly influenced by the intelligence level of the other family members. Thus, older siblings benefit from extra time spent with the parents, while younger siblings are negatively affected by the other children.

Birth order vs Intelligence

In nature vs nurture, nurture takes this round.

Kristensen, P. & Bjerkedal, T. (2007). Explaining the Relation Between Birth Order and Intelligence. Science, 316(5832), 1717. [PDF]

July 4, 2007 at 1:45 am 22 comments

Fluid Temperature has No Effect on Hydration

We reach for a ice-cold beverages on a hot summer day to rehydrate ourselves in the sweltering sun. Frozen water bottles and ice coolers are used to avoid warm drinks, which seem to evaporate once they hit your mouth.

Contrary to the practice of cooling or warming liquids to relieve your thirst, this study shows that temperature has no actual effect on hydration. Fluids administered to infants at body temperature (37°C) versus room temperature (23°C) were equally effective at hydration. This was the same case in both rotating and bolus (all at once) oral rehydration methods.

However, colder fluids pass throgh your body quicker than warm fluids, giving the perception they are better for hydration. This is not necessarily the case. Additionally, your body experiences a temperature cooling when filled with a colder liquid which feels more refreshing on a hot day. However, when it comes to thirst, colder or warmer drinks will quench it just the same.

Pizarro, D. T., Posada, G. S., Levine, M. M., Nalin, D. R., & Mohls, E. V. (1987). Comparison of Efficacy of Oral Rehydration Fluids Administered at 37°C or 23°C. Journal of Tropical Pediatrics, 33(1), 48-51.

April 28, 2007 at 12:53 pm 17 comments

Americans Getting Lonelier

In 1985, the General Social Survey reported that Americans had an average of 2.94 close friends (confidants is the term researchers like to use). A recent survey from 2004 found that the number of confidants has dropped to 2.08. In other words, Americans have lost on average one friend with whom they discuss important matters. The relationships with the greatest drop in confidants were neighbors and group/club members. We are less than half as likely to have them as close friends now than in 1985. It’s really unfortunate because everyone could use more friends. The paper suggests that the nature of our social network has changed. Instead of a few strong ties, we have more weak ties.

Americans are less likely to have friends with a different education level, but more likely to have friends of a different race. Furthermore, educated Americans have larger and more diverse networks. That says something about the friends you make during your college years — I find my closest friends are from internships and college.

McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Brashears, M. E. (2006). Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades. American Sociological Review, 71, 353-375. [PDF]

April 13, 2007 at 12:45 am 21 comments

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