Some time before I was a happy person, on Fourth of July weekend in 2011, I moved out of my home and first marriage—and then my laptop quit. This is a problem for a writer.
I’d spent most of the holiday scrubbing the cabinets of a rental home, fixing a crack in the ceiling and painting the living room. My parents drove to town to help me through the move, or to try to understand what was going on or to be sad with me. Whatever the reason, they were there.
“It’s fine,” I told them. “I’m fine.”
My father had been a handyman, but strokes took most of that knowledge and stuffed it somewhere behind the walls of aphasia. So when I moved into that rental house to start a yearlong separation, he was a dad who wanted to help, and knew how to help, but couldn’t articulate the help. He sat in the chair while I taped the ceiling.
“Feather it out!” he said as I spread drywall mud.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Mike!” he said, shaking his head. “Feather it out!”
“Dad!” I said. “I don’t know what you’re saying!”
A breaking point
We finished the job and went to the hardware store to buy a weed-eater, then grilled up a few hamburgers to celebrate America. The night before I went back to work, when I pulled out my laptop to check in, it didn’t turn on. No response. I plugged it in and still the screen was black. Then it happened.
I sobbed. I cursed the woman who’d become my ex. I cursed the paint and the heat and the work. I cursed being broke.
There was no feathering this out. Somewhere inside, I knew a broken computer was nothing compared to what was happening in my father’s brain. And I also knew that my ex was going through the same pain or worse.
The reason for my fit wasn’t the computer. I simply wasn’t a happy person, in the way ice simply isn’t warm.
I wasn’t well.
Getting back to a happy mood
I saw a therapist for a few months after that. After listening to me talk over a couple of visits, he suggested I’m happier when I’m doing more for others than I am myself. “Do more of that,” he said. I started mowing my neighbor’s yard. I played football with my other neighbor’s kids. I drove five hours to help a friend plant bushes outside his new home. And over the next year, I emerged from rock bottom.
Now, years later, I live in another city. I’m married again, terrifically so, and in love to degrees I didn’t know possible. I’ve been successful at work; I built a fledgling freelance business and gave it up only when a job I couldn’t turn down came along. We own a small brick home in a neighborhood with towering oaks that shade the world, and on warm nights we sit out back and watch our funny mutt, Gizmo, chase squirrels up trees. If my laptop were to die now, I’d laugh.
The past year tested the durability of that joy. My father, the star of our family, died at the start of 2019. Three months later, we spread his ashes in the Chesapeake Bay, where he was a charter boat captain. And soon after that, Laura and I came home, renovated the kitchen and added a bathroom. Men with muddy feet trekked through our house for nine months, and a port-a-jon was a permanent yard ornament.
Before 2019 was out, I’d turn 40, Laura and I would each accept unexpected job offers and a publisher would sign me up for a book deal.
Oh, and we would find out we’d be having a baby.
A study in tracking happy moods
Because that apparently isn’t enough, late in the year, this magazine came along with another fun game. I’ve contributed to these pages for several years now, and over that time, they’ve made a habit of showing up unannounced during busy seasons. Once, they asked me to keep track of the people I spend the most time with and assess whether they were making me better. I did that, wrote about it, and it didn’t cause any fights. Another time, the editors emailed with an assignment while I was on a trip to ask Laura if she’d like to get married. I said yes to the work, and the next day she said yes to me.
The experiment this time: track my subjective well-being. In fancy terms, track my “cognitive and affective evaluations” of my life. In simple terms, track my happiness. Not just by the day, but by the hour. I’d use an experience-sampling method for a month to keep score of my positive and negative emotions throughout each day, and then each night I’d ask myself how satisfied I am with life.
In my situation—finally feeling pretty good here, guys!—it’s dangerous stuff. The experiment could theoretically lead to disaster. Hey Mike, you’ve fully committed yourself to this life course. Committed to Laura. Committed to a new job, to the book. Committed to a new baby. But are you… a happy person?
My mind jumped ahead four weeks to the obvious next question. What if I’m not? Would I even want to know that?
The professor of happiness
Ed Diener helped countless people through similar experiments over the years. He was the alumni distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, and co-edited three books on subjective well-being. In the 1980s, he came up with the three-part model for measuring subjective well-being—“frequent positive affect, infrequent negative affect and cognitive evaluations such as life satisfaction.”
He was sort of the professor of happiness.
One of Diener’s most eye-opening studies was one he did on himself.
“I never realized my low moods were in the morning,” he told me. “I also saw higher moods on the weekend, which surprised me because I love my work.”
Once, a prominent morning talk show gave Diener an assignment to engage a group of people, including a few television personalities and support staff, in a study.
The results shook the producers so much they never ran the show.
“When I saw one fellow’s mood profiles, his unhappiness when he was with his wife just jumped out,” he wrote in an email. “Another thing that was clear was that the [show’s staff’s] moods were quite high on the weekend and really nosedived on Monday and [throughout] the week. Since the tenor of the program was very cheery and upbeat, it was shocking how low the moods were when they were at work.”
When I told Diener my assignment, I mentioned that my wife and I would be having a kid.
“Hopefully the birth of a baby is positive,” Diener replied. “Although you might get surprised with twins like we did.”
It’s nice to know the professor of happiness had a sense of humor.
How I tracked my happy moods
There are multiple ways to score your subjective well-being. For my own experiment, I used a fairly basic spreadsheet and phone alerts. I started the experiment on Wednesday, Dec. 4, and finished on New Year’s Day, exactly four weeks later. I listed all the hours in a day when I’m usually awake, starting with 6 a.m. and ending at 11 p.m. Going horizontally, I gave each block an hour: 6 a.m. to 7 a.m., and so forth.
On the vertical rail, I created four rows for each day. The top row was for positive emotions, the second was for negative emotions, the third was a description of what I was doing in that hour and in the fourth I established categories for each activity.
Each hour, I’d add a score for positive and a score for negative, on a range from 0 to 3. So an exceptional hour would go down as 3 in the positive and 0 in the negative. An awful hour would be 0-3. In some blocks, I had positive and negative: If I was feeling upbeat on a ride to work but got stuck in traffic or something, I’d record 1 point for positive and 1 for negative. At the end of the day, I’d tally each row. That gave me one measurement.
The second measurement was also at the end of each day. I simply assessed how I was feeling about life overall on a scale of 0 to 7.
Results of tracking my happy moods
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it’s one of the most worthwhile personal studies I’ve done. Some obvious trends emerge. The numbers tell you how you’re living and how you feel about how you’re living—good information for anyone who plans to keep living.
After four weeks, my positive score was 677 and my negative score was 272.
Of course this is the first thing I would like to share with you. Telling you my overall score first is the equivalent of posting a sunset shot on Instagram with a caption from one of those wall sayings. “Live in the moment,” and you too can have a positive score that’s three times your negative score.
Those numbers don’t give the whole picture, though. At the end of each day, in the “How satisfied are you?” column, where I could pick a number between 0 and 7, the numbers add up to 119, for an average of 4.25. That’s barely halfway satisfied, and I was on a holiday vacation for most of it.
But… I’m such a happy person! Look at that other score!
The way I figure it, if you “live in the moment” like I do, you probably lie to yourself in a few of them. When my phone buzzed to remind me to record my score, it was as if I was being evaluated in front of a live audience of one.
In the absence of a more reasonable response (what if most hours exist in a state that’s neither positive or negative?) a person will err toward the positive in the moment, then give a more honest assessment at the end of the day.
The interesting part comes when you look more closely at the numbers and find the trends. Where and when are the spikes?
Examining the data
One of my favorite simple lines in any song is by a Texas songwriter named Ryan Bingham, who has a line in “Dylan’s Hard Rain” that goes, “Everythin’ stays the same, if you don’t change it.”
I’ve listened to that lyric for about a decade, and it’s come to mean different things to me at different points in life. I sang it when I pulled out of that rental house and moved to another city. I sang it when I was sick of work or home.
Our lives are like car engines, with some parts running fine and others that could use a little tuning. In 2017, I left my job as the editor of a magazine to freelance and spend time with my dad in his final years. I was decidedly happier for having done that. I got to make up my own schedule and travel on assignments. And I was there with him through his final breath, something I’ll never regret.
Negative scores that were surprising
A couple of weeks later the owner of a local digital media company in my city, Charlotte, North Carolina, called and offered a contract to write for them. I took it, wrote one story, and then he offered me a full-time job to build a journalism outfit there. My first day was the Tuesday after Labor Day. It’s an exciting place to work. For the first time in my career, I’m at an outlet that’s growing and expanding. It’s fun.
Point is, I figured my work would get high, happy marks.
But the spreadsheet says otherwise. The work hours are, at best, even. But the most consistently negative time in my life, according to the spreadsheet, are the hours immediately after one of my stories publishes.
I give high marks for every reporting trip (exploring!) and most of the writing time (thinking!), but the feedback hours make me queasy.
The biggest difference now that I’m back at a local publication is that the responses are personal. The people who send nasty emails and social media posts sometimes turn out to be your neighbors. Each person who engages with a piece of writing brings their own experiences to my work, and those experiences could lead them to love or hate it, and me. Which is fine until you run into them at the supermarket.
The other 2s and 3s on the negative side were rare, but intense. And for many couples, they’re as common in December as the cold.
Negative scores that were expected
I know it’s inevitable, but it crushes me to argue with Laura. We had one on Christmas Eve, which had the lowest score of any day: 13-23. My mother was in town for the first Christmas without Dad. My brother had a new girlfriend flying out to see family. We had a few last-minute gifts to buy. Dinner was at 5; church at 8. Laura was pregnant. I was finishing a story. The angst and tension built quietly, until we were standing in our bathroom, stressed and arguing over how to get it all done.
She left to run her errands. I left to run mine. The next few hours were all negative 3s.
I recently read a story in the Los Angeles Review of Books that claimed 2019 was “quite a year for yelling.” The author discusses how several big movie scenes from the year hinged on passionate arguments. The biggest one was in A Marriage Story, where Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannsen, who are married in the film, shout for several minutes. Critics of all shades have shoveled praise on the scene.
There’s also a terrific song from Kesha that features Wrabel, Sturgill Simpson and Brian Wilson—it’s quite a trio—with the devastating line: “I don’t hate you, babe. It’s worse than that.”
I wonder why these pieces of pop culture are landing so firmly in American lives now. What’s going on with us? Are breakups having a moment? Are we embracing unhappiness? I hope not.
At least in this house, we’re not. Laura and I got right that afternoon. We talked. We listened. If I hadn’t been keeping a spreadsheet, I likely would have forgotten about it. It’s good that I haven’t. It’s the worst feeling of the month, and it’s helpful to see data to support that.
Happy days and positive scores
The day after Christmas, I turned 40.
This makes me a lot older than other first-time dads. For someone who spent a good bit of the past eight years helping to take care of his ailing father, I’m worried about that. You never want to look into the future and see yourself as an old man and a burden.
Laura and I drove to Charleston, South Carolina, that day, a short three-hour trip from our house. She’d booked a room at an artsy hotel, and for two days we walked and napped, walked and napped.
I did a lot of thinking, too. I missed my dad, and as we wandered into places and people looked down at her belly then looked away, we talked about our son and who he might be. The sadness of a first holiday season without a father and the excitement of a future with a son simply coexisted, but the good won out.
The score on the four days we were out of town was 115-5. The only negative emotions stemmed from anxiety over being on vacation and feeling like I should be working.
Not surprisingly, then, over the course of the four-week experiment, weekends also got high marks. So did workouts, like my long runs alone. And hanging Christmas lights on a sunny Sunday. Those were all 3s on the happy side.
A thing about this experiment you should know: If you do it, don’t tell anyone. A few times when Laura and I were walking around Charleston, she checked in.
“How are your points?” she’d say.
“Oh, you just want to have a good score,” I said, and she laughed.
“Well yeah,” she said. “Of course I do!”
What I learned by tracking my moods
The last days of the experiment were over New Year’s. You read lots of assessments of the past year around then. People painfully share how bad their year was, or how much they accomplished. Most of the assessments reveal more about the person’s outlook on life than real data.
On New Year’s Day, a friend had a small 50th birthday party at a dive bar. About a dozen of us showed up. The air was warm, so we sat on the back patio while his dog sniffed the fence line. The beer of choice for the group was National Bohemian.
Natty Boh is, if you have the right perspective, a bad beer that can be fantastic. It’s from Baltimore and carries a lot of the personality of that city. It can taste a little rusty on the first sip, but if you embrace it you can delight in its toughness.
On the back of the cans is a saying, “Live Pleasantly,” and it made me smile. I gave it a 3.
There’s a part of me that’s happy to report how I rallied toward the end of this experiment, that I’m on a run of sky-high scores. I’m happy to tell you that most of the things that should make a person happy—family and vacations and time together—do. But maybe tracking subjective well-being is more about the learning process than the final grade.
As I write this, my numbers are trending upward. Maybe it’ll keep going that way.
If not? Then maybe I’ll do something about it. Because everything stays the same if you don’t change it.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of SUCCESS magazine and has been updated. Photo by Ground Picture/Shutterstock