Interview With Happiness Expert Alejandro Cencerrado

(from the Happiness Research Institute)

I have been tracking my own happiness for 13 years (more specifically, at the time I am writing this, I have been tracking it for 4,920 days).

If I have to give some advice based on my data, it's that feeling “blue” once in a while is an inherent part of life, and that the best thing you can do is just to accept it; you can not be happy forever (neither unhappy).

A couple of weeks ago, I got in touch with Alex, an analyst at the Happiness Research Institute.

Turns out he is just as dedicated to tracking happiness as I am. If not more.

So we started chatting, as I was excited to learn more about him, what he did at his job and what he has learned from tracking his happiness.

Turns out Alex has tracked his happiness for the last 13 years! He lives and breathes like a data analyst, and happens to be passionate about happiness just like all of us!

So I had to interview him, as I knew there was a lot that we could learn from him.

alejandro cencerrado portrait picture
Alejandro - Alex- Cencerrado, an expert in happiness tracking data

So here it is. Alex was kind enough to allow me to ask him a couple of questions.

Tell me a little bit about yourself. How would others describe you?

I come from a dry, flat region of Spain called Albacete. The stars are very clearly visible from the outskirts of my city, and that's why I developed a special interest in astrophysics. When I was 18 years old I went to Madrid to study physics, and after finishing my degree and not finding a job in my country I decided to go to Copenhagen, where I currently live.

I think people would describe me as a curious person who finds the interesting side in almost everything.

This applies to people too. I always try to find the reason why others do what they do or say what they say, even if I disagree with them.

Besides that, I'm quite shy, although in general people don't notice it because I've learned to hide it very well.

How did you end up working for the Happiness Research Institute and what do you like about it most?

Last year the Institute published an open position as an analyst. Just a week before, I was fired from the company where I worked, so I applied for the position.

It sounds strange that in a company that analyzes happiness they chose a physicist like me, but there is an explanation.

I have been tracking my own happiness for 13 years (more specifically, at the time I am writing this, I have been tracking it for 4,920 days).

Every night since I am 18, I ask myself whether or not I would like today to be repeated tomorrow. If the answer to the question is positive, I put more than a 5 on a scale from 0 to 10. If not, I write less than 5.

In addition, I also write a diary in which I describe how the day went and what I felt. This helps me know which days I was happy or unhappy and more importantly why.

That's why I joined the Institute.

As you can guess, after 13 years of tracking my happiness, I was the perfect candidate. 🙂

alejandro cencerrado happiness graph 13 years data
What 13 years of happiness tracking data looks like

How Alex has created this chart:

So what you see here are those 4,920 days, and how he rated his happiness on those days.

The Y-axis on this chart might require a little explaining though. What this axis shows is the cumulative of his happiness.

Alex calculates this with the following formula: Cumulative of Happiness = cumsum(y-mean(y))

This might look intimidating at first, but it's actually really simple and clever. It basically normalizes the data and shows how each day compares to the average of happiness ratings up until that day. This allows him to easily spot trends.

If the line goes up, it means he is happy. It can't get much easier than that, can it? 😉

When, why and how did you start tracking your happiness?

I can't remember why I started to track my happiness.

What I do remember is that it was a difficult time at home when my parents argued a lot. And I didn't understand why  we were so unhappy because we had everything we needed (a good house, a TV, a car…)

It made me think that, if what I want in life is to be happy, then I should just write down what makes me happy and repeat it.

At first, I didn't have a mobile phone, so I used calendars that were given to my parents at their bank. I still keep those calendars at home, full of numbers on a marker. After six years, I decided that the numbers weren't enough, and I began to describe my days.

One of the most interesting findings on my study is that replicating tomorrow whatever made me happy today does not necessarily make me happy again.

That's because I adapt to it.

The first kiss with my girlfriend, passing an important exam... These things might make us happy one day, but we rapidly get used to it.

Blatant question #1: What period of your life shows the lowest happiness ratings? Could you tell a little more about what happened at that time?

The most unhappy period of my life was 6 years ago when I had to emigrate to Northern Europe.

For a Spaniard, the Danish darkness is very difficult at first, every shop and coffee shop closes before they do in Spain, and I spent the day in front of the computer without knowing what to do or who to meet, while Facebook was filled with photos of the friends I left in Spain doing all the things we use to do, without me.

This lasted about 5 months, and the biggest reason for my unhappiness during those days was my loneliness, a factor that has been appearing over and over again in my study as an intense source of unhappiness.

Loneliness isn't always bad, of course; wanting a little solitude after Christmas is a pleasant loneliness.

The loneliness I mean is the loneliness you feel when you don't want to be alone anymore, and you have no one to share your time with. That loneliness is horrible, and it doesn't depend on the number of people around you, but on the fact that the people around you, even if it's just one person, know you and really love you just as you are.

Even so, the most unhappy days did not occur during this period.

I've only scored a 1 two times in these 13 years tracking my happiness, and both were due to physical problems. One of them was a gastroenteritis that kept me vomiting all day, after eating an oyster.

What period of your life shows the highest happiness ratings? What made that period awesome?

I can summarize the reasons for my happy periods in three parts.

The first and main reason why one can be happy for several months is romantic love. Without a doubt, this is the unequivocal reason for the clearest happiness among my data.

The second reason for lasting happiness is summer, and more specifically, summer in a place with a really hard winter, like Copenhagen.

Even though it is much less sunny in Denmark than in Spain, and summers are generally less warm, I enjoy summer much more here in the north. While I lived in Spain I never wrote about the sun as a source of happiness, because I never missed it. To find Happiness, sometimes you have to lack the things that make happiness possible.

The third and final cause of lasting happiness is friends, and more specifically, having friends at work. In the period from 2014 to 2015, I can observe an unusually happy period lasting about a year and a half, which coincides exactly with my contract in a young company, in which I felt very valued and had many friends.

I think friends generally make us happy, but if we can also share our time at work with them, it means being happy a third of our week.

You collect and analyze data on what factors have the biggest influence on your happiness. Could you share what factors have the most influence, and how do you feel towards those factors?

I have one and only one answer to that question; the quality of social relations.

After 13 years I can safely say that this is the main reason for my happiness. Of course, there are many others that come to our minds; being healthy, successful, rich. I don't deny that these are important factors, but at least in my case, they are all overshadowed by social relationships. Success is important, as long as it doesn't interfere with all the other variables. And it usually does.

Feeling integrated with my colleagues at work, having someone to share my time with is much more important, but we don't pay the attention it deserves. And the difficulty in being happy is precisely in getting along with others; getting to open up to people, genuinely, which is much more difficult than becoming rich.

They say what gets measured gets managed. Do you feel like tracking your happiness has enabled you to steer your life in a better direction? If so, could you name an/some example(s) of how you did that?

I'm afraid I will disappoint people, but I haven't been able to get out of my baseline happiness for longer than a few months within these 13 years.

The easiest thing for me would be to give a list of self-help books on how to be happy, but I have to be honest. I have applied many of those methods that we all see on Facebook to have a meaningful life, and none of them have worked for a long time.

Neither trying to be more generous, nor volunteering, nor meditating have managed to get my happiness out of the average longer than a few weeks. One reason is the adaptation I talked about above.

Another reason is that bad days always come, no matter how aware we are of our own feelings.

If I have to give some advice based on my data, it's that feeling “blue” once in a while is an inherent part of life, and that the best thing you can do is just to accept it; you can not be happy forever (neither unhappy).

I have to add a nuance though; I am a person who has always had everything and who has never suffered from a serious illness.

It would be inappropriate to say that an immigrant who is in the waters of the Mediterranean right now or a patient with a chronic disease could not be happier if they were rescued or cured. From studying demographic data at the Happiness Research Institute I have learned that there are many people out there who are having a hard time by default.

Policies that really aim to improve a country's happiness must focus on those people.

What do you currently work on at the Happiness Research Institute?

Take a look at our webpage https://www.happinessresearchinstitute.com, where you can download some of our reports for free. We analyze happiness by sending questionnaires to people, in order to find out what makes people happy.

I saw Alex's colleague Meik at a TEDx talk about the correlation between average happiness in Denmark and suicide rates. This type of research is really fascinating to me, and it thrills me to think that these guys are actually analyzing data like this for a living. I mean, this type of information is what could truly help the world become a better place.

I am happy that you find it interesting!

I really liked Meik's TEDx talk too when I watched it the first time. It is really inspiring, and far from the typical talk on this topic.

You are invited to visit us and have a coffee whenever you can! 🙂

About our projects, we perform some of them ourselves. We are now sending questionnaires inside a small Danish company to address employees happiness. Sometimes we also use the data from European and International surveys, searching for patterns and interesting results or correlations.

Blatant question #2: What thing pisses you off the most? Hypothetically speaking, what is the quickest way for you to become unhappy/unhappier? What would need to happen for that?

That's a really good question. There is a really quick way of dropping down a day, which is getting angry with my girlfriend. And the usual reason I get angry with my girlfriend is when I feel like she's unfairly blaming me for something I've done when I just want to do the best I can.

Curiously enough, this anger occurs cyclically, with a period that can be clearly seen in my data.

Follow up question: What can you do or what have you done to prevent this from happening?

I still haven't found a way around it, and this is something that especially frustrates me because of how predictable it is.

That said, I haven't had a discussion with my girlfriend for two and a half months now, so it seems that we've really managed to work it out by talking about it and trying to understand each other, but it's happened so many times that it's really hard for us to believe that we're over it.

Finally, have you learned something odd/weird/strange about yourself because of your experiences with tracking happiness?

Yes.

I sometimes write down my dreams in my diary. In July last year, I had a very intense dream, in which I saw my aunt alive again (she died seven years ago from a stroke).

It was a very emotional dream for me, and the truth is that it affected me in such a way that I spent the whole day quite sad and melancholic, thinking a lot about death and how little time we really have in this world.

The funny thing about this story is, that by looking through my diary I found similar dreams about death that made me feel sad in previous years. And they always occurred at the beginning of summer.

I haven't found a reason why this happens to me periodically, but I have an intuition. In July the days in Copenhagen start to get especially long, and the sun comes in through the window at 6 o'clock.

During those early mornings, my brain wakes up because of the sun, at an hour when I'm still in REM phase. That's probably the reason why I remember and write about those dreams in my diary, during the same season every single year.

We all dream every day, even if we don't always remember the dreams. And probably the reason why many days we wake up sadder and others happier is simply the latent emotion that we have left after a dream. Just like I experience in July every year.

This is just a theory of mine, but it's an interesting pattern that you can find only when you track your daily life for years.

And I really encourage people to do the same. Tracking happiness really enables you to learn from these small and seemingly insignificant factors in your life. It might turn out that you can use these things to gain more control over your happiness! 🙂

I hope you enjoyed this interview just as much as I did.

There is a lot that we can all learn from Alex, and I hope I can keep in touch with him. Hell, I might even ask him to find additional correlations that I have not yet uncovered in my happiness factors.

If you want to learn more about what Alex does at the Happiness Research Institute, I highly recommend you check out their awesome publications.

Additionally, If you are ready to start tracking your happiness, you can get started right away! You can download my happiness tracking template below! 🙂

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