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What Harvard's iPhone Happiness Study Misses

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John Tierney, in today’s New York Times, reports on a team of Harvard psychologists who recently completed a study aimed at figuring out how daydreaming affects people’s overall happiness.

To do this, they enlisted 2,200 people with iPhones who downloaded an app called trackyourhappiness. At various points throughout the day, participants would be prompted by their phones to report on how they were feeling, what they were doing, and what they were thinking about.

Their conclusion? Daydreaming ain’t good:

“Whatever people were doing, whether it was having sex or reading or shopping, they tended to be happier if they focused on the activity instead of thinking about something else. In fact, whether and where their minds wandered was a better predictor of happiness than what they were doing.”

Tierney goes on to compare the study’s findings with long-held beliefs among yogis and other wise folk who have long argued that a focused mind is a healthy one.

Now all of this is well and good, except for one enormous flaw in the study.

iPhones—the very conduit through which subjects’ data was transmitted—could very well intrinsically make people happier!

Now look, obviously, I’m no psychologist. And far be it for me to challenge an otherwise illuminating and thought-provoking study (one that, I might add, kept me totally focused and feeling pretty happy). But, hello!, have you ever seen someone using an iPhone? Let alone try to talk to him?

It’s like trying to get the attention of a gnat who’s seen a neon light for the first time. You’ve never seen a happier person in your life! If you’re trying to study how attention span affects happiness, using an iPhone to conduct the study is the last thing you’d want to do. iPhones completely warp any sensible person’s normal perception of happiness altogether.  Ever watch Requiem for a Dream on an iPhone? It's a comedy!

But don’t just take my anecdotal evidence. Let’s take a look at some cold, hard numbers.

According to ChangeWave Research, 74% of iPhone users reported they were “very satisfied with the device.”

Paul Carton, ChangeWave’s research director told Computerworld that Apple’s numbers were “on a different planet,” and the number of users who were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” was 99%.

"There are few things in life where you can say you're 99% satisfied" Carton added.

In April, J.D. Power and Associates reported that the iPhone beat out all its competitors in overall customer satisfaction in every category except battery life.

CNet News ran a headline last May called “Survey: iPhone owners are the happiest.”

Blogger Chris Pirrilo has a great post called “20 Reasons I’m Happy With the iPhone”

The New York Times reported that iPhone users have more sex than other smartphone users, and guess what activity makes people happier than any other on the planet?  Yep. Sex.

The list goes on and on.

Now sure, you might say: “just because iPhone users are happy with their iPhones doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re happy overall.”

Maybe. But the point is, if you want to do a serious study about happiness, do you really want participants to rely exclusively on the most magical, incredible, beautiful, transformative, elegant, sexy, powerful, stylish, intelligent, awe-inspiring, and satisfying product known to man?

I’m not convinced. Next time, let’s try the study using a Windows phone. Then we’ll really know the truth behind daydreaming.
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