Monday, January 30, 2017

A new way of dieting or other habit changes: quantifying your wants

There is a cool new research project called in which some of my friends from the Mind and Life Institute participate. The project seeks to investigate what people think about and want and how those things influence each other. They do this study by means of a smartphone app, which everyone with a smartphone can download and try out. I downloaded it and have found it very insightful.

I often find myself wanting things, ranging from food to consuming media to--in fact--consuming anything. The app prompts you to investigate these wants. A few times a day, it buzzes you and asks you whether you want anything, a question that is immediately followed by questions like: how do you want to feel? (e.g., accomplished, comfortable, connected...).This is fascinating because it draws the connection between what you want immediately and why you might want that. For example, often I may want to check the twitter or consume other media. But why? Do I want to feel comfortable? Connected? Or actually, is feeling accomplished more important? If so, is social media the best thing to want right now? The app also asks you about your emotions and your social situation. For example, it asks you whether you feel content, angry, etc. It also asks you whether there are currently people around you, and whether you are interacting with them. Do you want more things when you are by yourself, or when with others?

After you have filled out a few prompts, the app starts to give you charts that index many different aspects of your behavior. For example, I found out that apparently, I am a pretty happy person, because my predominant emotions are content and happy. Also, want things more when I am alone than when I am with others. This makes sense to me, since when I am with others my mind is sufficiently occupied that I don't really need much more. Moreover, I want things more badly when I am in a bad mood compared to when I am in a good mood. Overall, I am pretty amazing that there are even such patterns in my own data. Quite interesting.

Most importantly, the app drew my attention to the kinds of choices I make in my life. Normally, when I want things, I unquestioningly follow those impulses (or resist them), but I don't investigate what is behind them, or whether they actually make me feel better. As a result of working with the app for a few days, I became more aware of what impulses make me really happy. For example, creating things and accomplishing things for others is what makes me happy, while my wants are usually quite the opposite: consuming things (mostly food and media). So, if I take a moment to reflect, I could actually become happier by following the longer-term goals of creating things for other people rather than simply following my mindless impulses... Do you want to try it out as well (and help science along the way)?
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