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Happiness Review 2020 – Correlating The Pandemic To My Personal Happiness

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Published on , last updated on January 29, 2021

happiness diary review 2020 featured 1

For new readers: This post is part of my on-going Tracking Happiness Diary updates. It’s basically a public case study on Tracking Happiness, by publishing about the ups and downs I write about in my journal. I started doing this when Tracking Happiness was first launched, and never stopped.

2020 is over. It’s been the weirdest year of my life, and that’s not even entirely due to the pandemic.

I’ve tracked my happiness throughout the entire year (like every other year since 2013) so it’s time to review the numbers.

In this review, I want to answer questions like:

  • Was this a happy year compared to other years?
  • Did the pandemic influence my happiness? If so, how much?
  • What influenced my happiness the most this year?
  • What can I do to make 2021 a happier year?

If you want to skip to a particular answer, you can use the navigation links below:

Obligatory introduction

If you’re familiar with these happiness diary updates, skip this chapter.

For those who are new, here’s a short introduction to my Tracking Happiness Diary. I started tracking my happiness in a diary at the end of 2013. What this means is that I answer 3 simple questions at the end of each day.

  • On a scale from 1 to 10, how would you rate your happiness?
  • What factors had a positive influence on your happiness?
  • What factors had a negative influence on your happiness?

Even though this takes me only 2 minutes a day, this has given me extremely useful insights about my own happiness.

If you’re cynical of this idea, I happily encourage you to let this blog post convince you otherwise! ?

With that out of the way, let’s start answering some interesting questions!

Was this a happy year compared to other years?

This bulleted list of average happiness ratings gives an answer.

I’m a visual person though, so I prefer to answer this question with charts!

This chart shows every happiness rating of 2020, with comments sprinkled throughout to give you an idea of what influenced my happiness most.

happiness ratings graph 2020

The TL:DR here is:

  • My average happiness rating in 2020 was 7.79.

This is pretty much exactly the same as the total average of all my happiness ratings from 2013 to 2020. I’ve actually done the math: From 2013 to the last day of 2020, I’ve tracked my happiness on 2,592 days, with an average happiness rating of 7.779.

This answers my first question of this post:

Was this a happy year compared to other years?

Answer: No. It was just about the most average year I’ve ever had.

But what does this comparison look like visually?

happiness ratings graph 2020 v others

This chart compares my happiness ratings of the year 2020 with every other (full) year of data. This excludes data from 2013, since my data doesn’t cover the entire year.

Unfortunately, this graph is unreadable.

Luckily, my friend Alexander from the Happiness Research Institute showed me a clever way to make more sense of this data.

  1. First normalize the happiness ratings. This means subtracting the average of all happiness ratings (7.779) from every single happiness rating.
  2. Then calculate the yearly cumulative normalized happiness rating. This may be a mouthful, but it’s a basically running tally of all normalized happiness ratings.

By using this method, I created the following graph for 2020.

normalized happiness graph 2020

In essence, the following happens here:

  • The line goes up whenever I track an above-average day.
  • The line goes down whenever I track a below-average day.

The sharper the drop, the unhappier I am.

This is a great way to show the big events of 2020.

What happened in the crappy period between June and July? Glad you asked. (NOT!)

In chronological order:

  • I experienced constant stress from a number of factors, but mostly from work.
  • This eventually resulted in insomnia, leading to a couple of sleepless nights.
  • This led to constant chest pains and the feeling of an anvil sitting on my chest. A doctor gave me an ECG, which I had to carry for a full week. (which is a big PITA…)
  • Worst of all, my dog had to be put to sleep, which was by far the most painful thing of 2020 for me.

ANYWAY, let’s get back to the fun data.

How does this “cumulative normalized happiness” compare to the other years?

normalized happiness graph 2020 v others

Did I say already that 2020 was an average year? ?

I think this chart does the best job in comparing my 2020 happiness with other years. What do you think?

If you’re interested in the happiness peaks and valleys of previous years, be sure to check out my previous yearly happiness diary reviews.

Here are the links: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015 & 2014.

(If you’re wondering what that god-awful decline in 2019 must have been, I got you covered: it was a terrible stress-inducing period that I spent offshore in Russia for work. That period was a big catalyst that made me quit my job this year.)

Did the pandemic influence my happiness?

This question is actually quite interesting and funny.

I’ll first show the data that provides some answers:

normalized happiness graph 2020 v pandemic

This chart shows my cumulative happiness in 2020 in blue, versus the daily number of positive COVID cases in red. This data is from the Netherlands, which is where I live.

(Like all countries, the first wave hit the Netherlands by surprise and testing capacity was limited. The true number of positive cases is believed to be much bigger.)

Did the pandemic improve my happiness?

From this graph, you would say that the pandemic didn’t influence my happiness in 2020.

In fact, I wrote a monthly update in April 2020 about how I experienced above-average happiness during the first big wave that hit the Netherlands.

This above-average happiness was likely an indirect benefit of the coronavirus. The pandemic caused a lot of construction projects to be halted, including some of the projects I worked for at my job as an engineer. Since these projects were only causing me stress, frustration and insomnia, my happiness was bizarrely increased as a result of the pandemic.

But if you’d say that this is extremely anecdotal, I’d agree with you. Even though I’ve delicately tracked my happiness this entire year, I have no idea of knowing whether this is causation or just correlation.

If I had to trust my data, though, I would say that this pandemic only had a positive impact on my happiness.

scatter pandemic v happiness 2020

This chart shows how my happiness was positively correlated to the number of daily positive COVID cases in the Netherlands.


The correlation isn’t strong though, with an R2 of just 0.042.

Of course, I’m not serious here. If anything, I think this graph belongs on Spurious Correlations.

How the pandemic screwed me over, like everyone else

In all seriousness, I believe the pandemic had a huge negative impact on my 2020. However, this is not directly clear from my happiness ratings.

Like the rest of the world, my girlfriend and I had much different plans for 2020…

When I wrote my review of 2019, we had big plans for 2020.

  • We were going to quit our jobs.
  • We were going to move out of our apartment.
  • We were going to sell my car.
  • We were taking a sabbatical, by traveling North America for a year.

We had been saving money diligently for years, and we thought 2020 was going to be the year of our wonderful sabbatical together. If you want to go back in time to 2019, to see my considerations at the time, here’s a link (opens in a new tab).

As I’m writing this at the end of 2020, I have some good news and some bad news.

On the good news front: We managed to quit our jobs, we managed to move out of our apartment and I sold my car!

Here’s the bad news: we never made it out of Europe!

So we took all these big risky decisions, only to be “stuck” in the Netherlands.

ANYWAY, I’m rambling again. This should be a data-driven post, not a pity-party.

What influenced my happiness the most this year?

Part of what makes tracking happiness great is seeing what factors have the biggest influence.

Every day, I ask myself which factors played a positive and a negative role in my happiness.

Positive factors

The chart below shows the top 10 most frequently tracked factors that had a positive influence.

most frequent positive happiness factors 2020

Funnily enough, the top 5 factors of 2020 are almost exactly the same as 2019.

  1. Relationship (n=255)
  2. Relaxing (n=158)
  3. Running (n=68)
  4. Friends (n=58)
  5. Skateboarding (n=53)

The only difference is that Skateboarding and Family switched places.

A perfectly valid explanation for this switch is that the pandemic limited the time I could spend with my family. Instead, I used part of this time to practice one of my favorite hobbies: skateboarding.

This is just a simple count of happiness factors though. What were the factors that influenced my happiness the most?

best 5 happiness factors 2020

This chart shows the factors that I tracked on my happiest days. In other words, whenever I tracked these factors, my happiness rating was above average!

For example, I went mountain biking four times in 2020. On average, I rated these days with an 8.69.

Does this tell me what my most powerful positive happiness factors of 2020 was? Not necessarily, because this doesn’t take the frequency into account.

Mountainbiking “only” happened four times in 2020, while my Relationship had a positive influence on my happiness a staggering 255 times!

My relationship just doesn’t show up in the chart above because it calculates averages. The fact that I tracked this factor 70% of the time means that it regresses to the overall mean happiness factor.

What about the negative factors?

Negative factors

The chart below shows the top 10 most frequently tracked factors that had a negative influence.

most frequence negative happiness factors 2020

The 5 worst factors in 2020 (by frequency) are:

  1. Tired (n=61)
  2. Agitated (n=28)
  3. Stress (n=27)
  4. Work (n=15)
  5. Insomnia (n=8)

The biggest change from 2019 is Work.

In 2019, I tracked “Work” as a negative factor 44 times.

In June 2020, I quit my job, which instantly cut me loose from its negative impact. Additionally, I was Tired much less because I slept longer. My Stress levels reduced, which made me sleep even better (less Insomnia).

So far, I don’t regret this decision at all, even despite this entire pandemic.

worst 5 happiness factors 2020

No matter how much work sucked, it wasn’t the suckiest thing I remember from 2020. The shittiest thing that happened in 2020 was losing my companion, our dog.

As much as I hated work, the Sadness I felt on the days surrounding this event was much worse. And this chart reflects that.

What can I do to make 2021 a happier year?

In previous year, this question has been a fun one to answer.

This year, however, is different. Why? Because it’s near-impossible to predict the future. A lot of factors are simply outside my control.

Mainly, I have no idea if the pandemic will be under control at the end of 2021.

In June 2020, I already got rid of a lot of negative happiness factors by quitting my job.

But did that introduce me to another set of new negative happiness factors? I can surely think of a couple, like:

  • The uncertainty of living without a steady income.
  • Watching my hard-earned savings go down the drain as we wait for the international borders to open up again.
  • Trying (and failing) to turn Tracking Happiness into an actual business (yes, I’m giving it a proper go!)

Hell, maybe the virus will mutate into COVID 1900 before we get the chance to vaccinate everyone… Then what?

All I know is that I can only focus on the things I can control.

So I’ll rephrase the question to something that I can answer instead:

How do I plan to make 2021 a happier year?

  • By taking this website (ahum, business!) more seriously and considering it as my new fulltime job. This sounds scary, as it’s currrently not profitable, but I have solid plans that will get it profitability.
  • By continuing to spend as much quality with my girlfriend as possible. Without her, 2020 would have looked a LOT more grim. There’s simply no other person who I could be in this situation with. No matter what happens in 2021, I want to stay happily together.
  • By continuing to exercise. Running, skateboarding and walking outside have all had a wonferful impact on my happiness. And the pandemic doesn’t even limit me in these factors!

I want to focus on these 3 points mostly in 2021. I could list a whole lot of other stuff, but again, I only want to focus on things that I can control.

I’m extremely excited for 2021, and can’t wait to reflect on this new year in the first week of 2022!

Disclaimer: I am aware that I’m EXTREMELY lucky to not have been hit harder by the virus. I’ve not tested positive so far, and none of the people that I care about have been harmed by the virus. I know that a LOT of people right now have it much worse. I hope this post doesn’t offend anyone. I can see how this “breezy light-headed data analysis” can come accross as somewhat insensitive. If I’ve given you the idea that I’m privileged, daft or just ignorant about this topic, I’m sorry.

Closing words

If you want to find out more about my happiness journal for a specific month, please use these links below to navigate to my monthly happiness reports!

See you next year! ?


Hugo Huijer

Founder of Tracking Happiness

Founder of Tracking Happiness and lives in the Netherlands. Ran 5 marathons, with one of them in under 4 hours (3:59:58 to be exact). Data junkie and happiness tracker for over 7 years.

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