The happiness scientist: ‘Wealth is rising while well-being is falling’

Alejandro Cencerrado has been keeping a daily record of his mood since he was 17 years old and now analyzes large-scale data at the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen

Alejandro Cencerrado happiness
Alejandro Cencerrado, the happiness scientist.Juan Millás
Sergio C. Fanjul

– How is your day? Are you feeling happy?

– Not bad, I’d give it a six for now.

Scientist Alejandro Cencerrado is having a nice day, even if it is a bit cloudy in Madrid, the Spanish capital. We go for a bike ride along the banks of the city’s Manzanares River. Riding a bike is one of the activities that most improves his well-being. Cencerrado knows this well: since he was 17 years old, he has been writing down his daily happiness score, from one to 10, in a diary, where he also takes note of what affects his mood. “When I was a kid, certain episodes when my parents argued a lot made me very unhappy,” he recalls. “I didn’t understand why we were unhappy when we had everything.”

This practice of recording his emotional well-being has made him a good fit for the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, where he follows the same process, only on a larger scale. Supported by his degree in Physical Science, Cencerrado analyzes the data of thousands of people in a bid to better understand the dynamics of happiness and its importance in designing public policies.

“With my algorithm, I can compare what kind of culture or company makes people happier,” explains Cencerrado, who has recently published his findings in a new book called En defensa de la infelicidad (or, In Defense of Unhappiness).

happiness graphs
Alejandro Cencerrado analyzing a happiness report. Juan Millás

Discussion on the science of happiness usually brings to mind the wellness industry, self-help books and mugs with positive messages. But this doesn’t have much to do with well-being. “I guess it will help someone, but I think one of its flaws is making us believe that happiness is simple and that it depends on us: I haven’t seen that in my analysis,” explains Cencerrado. What he has seen in his data is that happiness depends a lot on social context, work, free time and material conditions. “If we really want to have a welfare state, we have to start asking people how they feel,” he says.

Measuring progress by comparing gross domestic product (GDP) made sense when there was greater material deprivation. But now that survival is more or less guaranteed, another way will have to be found, he says. “We are seeing more and more problems with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and we don’t know what to do, because we measure progress based on wealth, which is rising in many countries while well-being is falling,” he explains.

His proposal, and that of his institute, is to scientifically measure well-being. The main threats to happiness are loneliness, mental illness, the crisis of confidence and growing social inequality. “We have everything our grandparents would have wanted…and we’re not that happy either. Is progress what we thought it was?

Alejandro Cencerrado cycling through Madrid.Juan Millás

After half a lifetime analyzing his own happiness, Cencerrado says he is no happier now than before (and he has the data to back him). He hasn’t rated any of his days a 10 out of 10. So what has all this been for? Well, apart from giving him a mission in life and the focus of his work, it has taught him to accept unhappiness.

Happiness has strange dynamics, it tends to be elusive, it works by contrast and we tend to quickly get used to the good things, he says. Dissatisfaction, in fact, is what helps motivate us to get out of bed every morning. “I think we should all do this analysis, in the end, it is positive, because we are very illiterate when it comes to emotional matters,” says Cencerrado. “We have to learn to share our vulnerability.”

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