Scientists are using smartphones to explore how environment influences a person's sense of happiness.
In a study involving volunteers who agreed to provide information about their feelings and locations, researchers at Princeton University found that cell phones can efficiently capture information that is otherwise difficult to record, given today's on-the-go lifestyle.
This is important, according to the researchers, because feelings recorded "in the moment" are likely to be more accurate than feelings jotted down after the fact.
The team created an application for the Android operating system that documented each person's location and periodically sent the question, "How happy are you?"
They invited people to download the app, and over a three-week period, collected information from 270 volunteers in 13 countries who were asked to rate their happiness on a scale of 0 to 5.
Researchers created and fine-tuned methods that could lead to a better understanding of how our environments influence emotional well-being.
The mobile phone method could help overcome some of the limitations that come with surveys conducted at people's homes, according to the researchers.
Census measurements tie people to specific areas – the census tracts in which they live - that are usually not the only areas that people actually frequent.
John Palmer, paper's lead author, and colleagues designed the free, open source application for the Android platform that would record participants' locations at various intervals based on either GPS satellites or cellular tower signals.
Palmer noted that the team's focus at this stage was not on generalisable conclusions about the link between environment and happiness, but rather on learning more about the mobile phone's capabilities for data collection.
The team obtained some preliminary results regarding happiness: for example, male subjects tended to describe themselves as less happy when they were further from their homes, whereas females did not demonstrate a particular trend with regards to emotions and distance.
The study was published in the journal Demography.