An LSE professor has developed an app to monitor the happiness of LSE students and staff, and to learn about how this is affected by their surroundings. The study is being done by Paul Dolan, head of the department of Psychological and Behavioural Science, a Professor here at the LSE. Prof. Dolan has been a leading researcher in studying what makes people happy, he is widely cited and has written a best-selling book on the topic, ‘Happiness by design’. His latest project is a study that uses an innovative methodology he and others have developed, for studying the wellbeing of students here at LSE.
The app used in the study works by asking people around six times a day how happy, and fulfilled they are in the current moment. Along with that, it asks them what they are doing, who they’re with, and so on, to develop a rich picture of how exactly people’s surroundings affect their wellbeing. This app will be used by LSE students and staff in order to understand how LSE as an institution affects people’s happiness.
He stresses that, for the moment, this is purely a research study. He even stated that if he was a professor at a university with excellent student satisfaction, he would have done the study at that university. He did think that LSE’s woes with student satisfaction provided an opportunity for his study, and in any case, as he put it, “there is an interest beyond the academic world”. He emphasised that this research was vitally important in recognition of growing mental health issues, stress and other problems facing students “that matter beyond how students are evaluating their courses”.
Prof. Dolan took a modest, but optimistic view of the problems facing LSE students’ wellbeing: “LSE are alert to that [LSE’s low student wellbeing], and the impacts of changes don’t happen overnight”. While still in the research phase he explains that it’s being done “with a view towards thinking about what interventions might be put in place to improve people’s wellbeing.” “We will turn that [low student satisfaction] around, and insofar as what we’re doing in this quite separate piece of research informs that, that’s great.”
It is, however, important to understand how this research differs from the reams of surveys we have all filled in, on how we feel about LSE. Simply put, the point of the app asking about how you’re feeling is to find out how LSE affects you, without asking what you think about LSE as an institution. He explained this by quoting a ‘fortune cookie maxim’: “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is whilst you’re thinking about it.” What he means is that, for example, if you asked someone a series of questions about their income, their career, and so on, and then ask them how happy they are, they’ll likely think that they are happy simply because they just finished detailing how much money they have.
Dolan argues that this ‘snapshot’ approach to happiness is entirely wrong. Your life isn’t the bottom line of your tax returns—life is the coffee you’re drinking right now, and the conversation you’re having with a friend. Happiness, for Dolan, is to be understood as a flow of experiences over time. Put succinctly: “a journey, rather than a destination”—he quickly apologised for the cliché.
So, in practice, you could be standing in line for the Hari Krishna food, or walking around listlessly looking for a seat in the library, and the app would ask you how happy you felt at that moment. Of course, no one is that happy about spending their Sunday evening solving a problem set or writing essays, this is why as well as asking how happy you are, the app also asks how worthwhile you think what you’re doing is. By seeing how people feel in these different environments, and times in their day, we can see how all the small moments of unhappiness can result in an unhappy university life
This information isn’t only of use to the university, it can help people see why, perhaps because they’re living out expectations and social norms, they fill their time with things that aren’t enjoyable, or fulfilling.
From the 13th of November, students and staff will be able to download the app. You can download it from the information sent to you via email, or found in the Student Hub app. Once you’ve downloaded the app, you answer some initial questions about yourself, like what you’re doing at LSE and a personality questionnaire. Then you are free to answer the app’s several multiple-choice questions sent every day.
Anyone committed to improving wellbeing across our school community should download the app. If that isn’t enough for you, if you answer over 70% of the app’s 1-minute long surveys for two weeks, you get a £20 Amazon voucher. The information you give to the app is entirely anonymous, as well as compliant with General Data Protection Regulations.
This seems like the ideal of what academia should be. Developing methods to figure out how to solve the actual problems in real people’s lives. It might even get LSE to finally scrap LSE100.