How Data Can Improve Your Life

This week's NYT Magazine cover story, penned by Wired's Gary Wolf, is about people who obsessively collect data on themselves—how much they eat or sleep, how happy they feel, etc. Are numbers the path to a happier life?

Wolf explains that a confluence of factors—namely smaller sensors, in conjunction with the rise of social media, smart phones, and the cloud—has made rigorous personal data logging convenient for an unprecedentedly large group of people.

Numbers are an incredibly powerful tool, and because of the factors above, individuals are just now starting to harness that power for their personal lives. Wolf says:

Numbering things allows tests, comparisons, experiments. Numbers make problems less resonant emotionally but more tractable intellectually. In science, in business and in the more reasonable sectors of government, numbers have won fair and square.

For a long time, only one area of human activity appeared to be immune. In the cozy confines of personal life, we rarely used the power of numbers. The techniques of analysis that had proved so effective were left behind at the office at the end of the day and picked up again the next morning. The imposition, on oneself or one's family, of a regime of objective record keeping seemed ridiculous. A journal was respectable. A spreadsheet was creepy.

And yet, almost imperceptibly, numbers are infiltrating the last redoubts of the personal. Sleep, exercise, sex, food, mood, location, alertness, productivity, even spiritual well-being are being tracked and measured, shared and displayed.

Sometimes these individuals collect the data to answer specific questions—"why do I snore when I sleep," for instance—but most of the time, Wolf asserts, it's only after collecting this data that the problems themselves begin to emerge, problems that were subconsciously obscured or ignored by individuals until the hard data was staring them in the face.

The full article, explores this fascinating phenomenon in greater depth, and suggests some entry points for readers who suspect that keeping a personal spreadsheet of their own might not be so bad of an idea. [NYT Magazine]

Image credit Chris Devers