Try ‘Experience Sampling’ to Track Feelings and Actions

Were you happy today? How often were you happy today? What were you doing when you felt happy? What if I had called you randomly during the day today and asked you that? If you didn’t hang up or block my calls, what would your answers be?

In last month’s “Pedagogy Stew,” I wrote about a study in which researchers from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro were trying to find out what occupied people who were more creative. The method they used to find out how people were spending their time is called “experience sampling.”

In short, the experience sampling method is when researchers ask study participants to keep a diary or otherwise report on what they’re doing and how they’re feeling at various times during the day. In the UNC-G study, they called the 79 students at relatively random times and asked them if they were doing something creative, and if they were alone or with other people. They also asked students to rate themselves on a scale of 1-7 for these feelings: happy, active, sad, discouraged, restless, anxious, angry, annoyed or self-conscious. (The researchers said these “reflect the range of common feelings that college students report in a typical week.” I would also say it’s a range of common feelings for most of us.)

We did a modified version of experience sampling in my creativity and problem-solving class earlier this semester. I asked students to write down a list of times from earlier in the day (picked very randomly by me as I was giving them instructions), and then to describe what they were doing, and to rate their feelings. I wanted them to experience experience sampling. It wasn’t really the same experience, since we often report our feelings differently in hindsight, but it is an interesting exercise.

The researchers found that “when people reported doing something creative, they reported feeling significantly happier and more active.” This finding corresponds to other research. My students, in response to the article, pointed out that the researchers hadn’t adequately accounted for possible other reasons that someone might report being happy — for example, having the time to DO something creative would tend to make a person happier by itself.

Still, it’s an interesting study. A fantastic creativity researcher, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, used experience sampling when he was learning about what he calls “flow.” What he found is that we’re happier when we’re in a “flow” state, that is, when we’re so absorbed in a challenging activity that we lose track of time. We might think that we’re happiest and most relaxed when we’re Netflixing and chilling, but that’s not what Csikszentmihalyi found.

If you want do some experience sampling of your own, keep a diary during the day. Or pair up and call your partner randomly one day (then have your partner call you randomly the next). Write down what you’re doing, and rate your feelings. You might learn something about what makes you anxious. Or annoyed. Or happy.

Marnie Dresser is a poet, creativity researcher and English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Richland. She lives in Spring Green with her husband and son.