Thursday, 25 November 2010

Happy Housing and the Power of Teenage Idealism

One half house
Photo By Andreas Solberg via Flickr

This might be old news for some, but I still find the story very inspirational and thus worth spreading.

Teenagers often have silly ideas. I can assure you I had quite a few when I was fourteen. For some reason it never crossed my mind to ask my parents to sell our house, move in to a house worth half the price of the old one and donate extra money to charity. But when Hannah Salwen was fourteen years old that is exactly what she came up with. And to everyone's surprise her parents sold the house and donated  eight hundred thousand dollars to villagers in Ghana through the hunger project.

After selling the house Hannah and her father Kevin wrote a book called "The Power of Half" of their experience. They've appeared on television and in several newspapers and magazines. They also travel around to talk about their project at schools, community centers and so on.

I have not yet had a change to read the book, but I still find the story as an amazing manifestation of how silly idealism can lead to real life-changing results both at individual and global level.

The Salwens changed their own life for better by realizing that aspiring for new possessions does not make the family any happier. They also realized that they spent more time together as a family when living in a smaller house. The whole process forced them to work together and talk a lot.

The project also changed the lives of people from 40 villages in Ghana. Most importantly though the book and the project have created a lot publicity and momentum for the idea of everyone having a half they can give a way. It might be half of the house, but it could just as well be half of the items in the wardrobe or half the money one would spent on beer on a Friday night.

By surrendering to silly teenage idealism the Salwens transformed their own lives and thousands of other lives for better. How amazing is that?

Thursday, 18 November 2010


Happiness research may seem easy to criticise. How can we get reliable data? Will participants answer honestly in a survey? If they are filling the survey at school or work how does that environment affect their feelings and answers? Is happiness something that people are able to evaluate over longer time spans? I have to admit, that if asked if I was happy this time last year I would have hard time answering. Or even last week. Also there might be a bias towards people saying they're happier than they actually are because they feel that's what they ought to say.

Some of these problems might just have been solved by combining smart-phones and surveys. LSE (London School of Economics and Political Science) has introduced an iPhone application called mappiness that prompts users to tell where they are, what they are doing, with whom and how happy, relaxed and awake they are while doing whatever they were doing. It even asks them to take a picture of what they have directly in front of them. All this data gets collected daily from thousands of users.

I think this is marvellous because it brings answering the survey questions in the middle of the everyday life. Happiness or the lack of it often manifests itself in the small details of everyday life.

The application beeps as many times a day as the user sets it to do so, only inside a time frame set by the user and it only asks for a picture if the user has given it permission to do so. So it should not bother anyone too much and still it creates an amazing set of data that couldn't be collected in any other feasible way.

I've been using the mappiness-application for couple of months now and in my opinion the application is also rewarding to use. When it beeps I automatically reflect on what I'm doing and how happy am I doing that. I find thinking about how happy I am couple of times during the day both pleasant and useful. It also gives me some charts about when I am happiest, with whom I am happiest and a list of things I am happiest or least happy doing. Some of these things were obvious to me before, but some were new information. The little geek in me really likes this scientific approach to figuring out what I should be doing to be happy.

The application also maps (hence the name) where people are happiest. This should eventually provide new knowledge about how green spaces or noise affect happiness. It collects the photos submitted by users into a nice map. Unfortunately at the moment they're only concentrating on collecting data in the UK. It would be great to have this kind of information in a map covering the whole world.

Even though I am very excited about this new approach to studying happiness there are naturally some drawbacks. Here are some that have crossed my mind:

  • Iphone users are not representative of the population over all.
  • Often I'm really happy in situations when I don't have my phone with me (like hiking, camping).
  • Also when a person is extremely unhappy, their first priority is quite unlikely to be attending a happiness survey.
  • People are voluntarily uploading the application and thus are already interested in happiness or like taking part in surveys. 
  • The app has a category for 'Intimacy/making love', but who would answer the questions while having sex? Or even directly after?
The first one can of course be partly solved by providing applications for other smart phones as well, but this will naturally still leave significant part of the population out. But even if the sample is not representative in my opinion this is a ground breaking way to study happiness and will hopefully give some new insights into what makes people happy.

I will follow the project and probably post some further thoughts on it when they have had time to analyse the data. If you want to follow the project more closely, you can do so via their blog.