Can we track what makes humans happy?

Lithuanian scientists are working on a formula for happiness. Their biometric measurements of feelings and emotional states propose to improve lives. But smart governance linking efficiency with happiness might have repercussions, says Skaidra Trilupaitytė. In a pandemic-tainted world, tracking and advanced lie detector tests could have questionable political uses.

Enthusiasts of the fourth industrial revolution like to talk about the world changing rapidly and the need for people to become increasingly more flexible.

Rapid development and the spread of information technologies prompt further rapid changes in the legal system. But the existing system has hardly been able to ‘catch up’ with the current situation.

We keep hearing that people should learn to adjust to these changes. However, rather than criticizing people’s lack of flexibility, proponents of the fourth industrial revolution insist that more attention should be paid to the relationship between the competences of smart technologies and people’s abilities.

After all, no one urges a calculator-wielding employee to work faster in order to catch up with their calculator. Neither Klaus Schwab, the founder of World Economic Forum, in his discussions of the multifaceted impact of the fourth industrial revolution, nor philosopher Lucian Floridi, in his exhaustive analysis of the revolution caused by information and communication technologies, suggest that people should compete with machines. Instead, both of them focus on the newly developing relationships between humans and machines.

New political strategists, including those in Lithuania, have taken to launching the ‘govtech’ initiatives, urging the public sector to become ever more transparent, innovative and efficient, using tools based on smart technologies, which should also help tackle excessive paperwork and ever-growing bureaucracy.

Image by Wesley McLachlan on Unsplash.

The need for ‘creative destruction

Advocates of govtech, however, often note that the newest technologies have a tendency to distract people from their core tasks.1 This is because digital tools do not necessarily ensure the desired flexibility with administration. Problems arise when highly qualified and experienced employees have no time left to reflect on their activities. Their time is consumed by managing tasks whereas their creative potential, which could inspire unconventional decisions, remains unused. As a result, the joy caused by quick and efficient decisions is often replaced by the disappointment of being stalled by rules and regulations.

It is worth considering an invitation issued by the Lithuanian governmental agency for science, innovation and technology (Lithuanian – MITA), on 31 March 2020, ‘to create a device to measure emotions’, an EmotionMeter, which would be ‘innovative, compact, and one of its kind, with no equivalents in either Lithuania or abroad’.2 The pre-commercial procurement of the idea for such a device was initiated by the Centre for Pedagogical and Psychological Support at the Municipality of Trakai County. The device in question was described as very relevant and necessary, because, during the pandemic, people’s psychological state could be damaged not only by the fear and anxiety caused by the spread of the virus, but also by the economic and social consequences that the quarantine would bring about. Therefore, ‘it is important to closely monitor the emotional state of a human being; to recognize the emotions s/he experiences; to detect their emergence and trace their development’. After the proposal was made public, it drew criticism from many psychologists and the media.3 Nonetheless, ideas about how to ensure that people feel happy and stay productive deserves a closer examination, particularly in the context of contemporary technology and innovation policies.

Whether – or how – human beings can be made more productive and efficient by controlling their emotional impulses is of great interest to the world’s most powerful political leaders and the heads of corporations. This is one of the reasons that the digital data behind our online activities is so actively tracked. Biometric measurements are also collected with enthusiasm. All this data helps developers create new tools and applications.

However, I do not regard the phenomenon of happiness from a subjective point of view; that is, I am not interested in the subtleties of how feelings can be revealed. My focus is public political rhetoric related to the ideology of universal happiness and optimism, so deeply rooted in the contemporary world. This becomes particularly obvious during times of crisis.

Creating happiness programmes and indexes

More than ten years ago, many business and political leaders made declarations about their aims to ensure the happiness of their societies. In Lithuania, such visions of the future were being developed and promoted by the National Progress Council (Valstybės pažangos taryba), with aspirations towards universal happiness included in some political programmes. For instance, during the parliamentary election campaign of 2008, with a world financial crisis already imminent, the Liberal and Centre Union set a goal: Lithuania would rank among the fifteen happiest countries in the world by 2015. The leader of the party Artūras Zuokas promised to invite experts to calculate indexes of happiness and creativity. A few years later, the Prime Minister of the Lithuanian Government Andrius Kubilius also took to formulating aspirations for universal happiness and sketching trajectories of the country’s success.4 The optimism of such declarations, as well as the growth of the gross domestic product, has been an important motif in the political discourse for many years.

In 2019, the Office of the Lithuanian Government announced in its report focused on the implementation of the national progress strategy Lithuania 2030 that, ‘according to the happiness index, Lithuania had advanced from the 20th to the 18th position in the EU in 2017. In 2015-2017, the happiness index of the Lithuanian residents was measured at 5.95 points, showing a significant rise (by 0.66 points) over the last ten years, and according to this index, Lithuania is among the most rapidly improving countries in the world’.5 This report, including the happiness index, included claims that it used data provided by international organizations.

Photo by Denise Jones on Unsplash.

Less than a year later (as noted above, on 31 March 2020) MITA announced that it seeks ‘to monitor long-term changes in people’s emotional state’, and that a device designed to help conduct such monitoring ‘will help prevent both various health issues and social problems, and will boost people’s productivity and creativity’. And the idea of using science in our pursuit of happiness does not look so funny anymore.

Kubilius, who had spoken ten years earlier about the impossibility of predicting the future of rapidly developing technologies, emphasized that ‘it’s difficult to predict whether we will still be using or something else; maybe we will already have chips implanted in our brains’. Nowadays we are faced with ever-increasing amounts of data and information while the number of documents that regulate technology increase as well.

I would agree with Kubilius that we may only estimate what kinds of relationships will soon be established between the new digital tools and human ability. There is as yet no need to fear ‘chips’ being implanted into our brains. But well-known companies as Neuralink, established by Elon Musk, are already conducting experiments in this sphere; only last year, Neuralink announced that they would be actively working to create a more perfect electronic link between the computer and human brain.

Our brain is not yet implanted with microchips, but we are no longer surprised at smartphones or smart-watches registering our biometric data. There is no secret that this data is used not only to develop new even more user-friendly apps, but also to influence an individual, who, with the help of these apps, may create a more comfortable environment for him/herself and will (perhaps) feel happier.

Happiness-focused political rhetoric also often makes references to various technological experiments, applied scientific research, and Lithuania is no exception here. Innovations which allegedly help boost a person’s wellbeing can easily be introduced. For instance, Lithuania’s capital city has recently adopted the slogan ‘Happy Vilnius’. The mayor of Vilnius describes the city as ‘a wonderful playground for new ideas and initiatives, technologies and their developers, and innovative businesses’.6

The newly elected Vilnius Council, having used the happiness index, takes pride in the progress made by ROCK (Regeneration and Optimisation of Cultural Heritage in Creative and Knowledge Cities), an international project funded by the EU together with the scientists from Vilnius Gediminas Technical University (VGTU) along with European partner insititutions. With the help of this project, Vilnius, a city seems to be attempting to figure out the secret to happiness.

It promotes a close relationship between innovative devices and a human’s emotional state. This is evident in other initiatives. For instance, on 7 January, 2019, MITA issued an invitation ‘to create an innovative product for boosting the psychological wellbeing of our society’ organized together with the municipality of the resort city Druskininkai.7

At the end of 2019, Vilnius City Municipality playfully announced, with reference to ROCK,  that ‘a VGTU scientist is working on a formula [for] happiness’. The technological equipment for the project was not made in Lithuania; Lithuanian scientists undertook only to process the biometric data obtained by cameras that were used to observe the passers-by in Vilnius. The head of the project Artūras Kaklauskas was quick to tell the public: ‘No personal data is collected. The system only processes depersonalized data about the moods of those who pass by and averages the measurements.’

We do not know yet how politicians will envisage using the data. Kaklauskas, when asked to comment on the applicability of the data, talked about an economic expression of happiness: ‘We are now seeking to devise formulas for different age groups and supplement them with diverse variables – what a formula for happiness should be; how it depends, e.g. on pollution levels, magnetic storms, and other things. We have lots of data, multiple dependencies; we examine their reliability mathematically and devise various formulas for when a person is angry or joyful, when he/she is interested, and when bored. What kind of practical application do we see? For instance, how active a person is depends on his/her happiness; feeling happy, he/she is also more productive. There are 300-500 confirmed cases when the overall quality of life of a happy person is significantly higher. At the same time, GDP increases, too: such a person is more efficient at work, remembers better, has better relationships, is healthier, etc. If a person is happy, he/she is more successful everywhere. We are now taking the measurements in Vilnius, but we have also done that in Brussels, in Bologna and Lisbon; the project is also about to be launched in Sri Lanka. This equipment travels all over the world.’

For many decades, psychologists, security service experts and spies have been looking for ways to determine precisely what people are thinking and feeling. No one has been successful so far. Hardly anyone believes that some device will be able to answer these questions. However, it is interesting that the devices installed in Vilnius to measure happiness do not imitate regular sociological surveys, during which people can say whatever crosses their mind, but register sensory perceptions.

Kaklauskas emphasized that ‘it’s close to impossible to deceive’ the ‘intuition’ of a sensor which measures our temperature, pulse, and breathing. However, Kaklauskas did not attempt to raise questions of a more philosophical kind, for instance, whether increased economic usefulness would make a person’s life more meaningful. Still, political ideology is crucial here.

Beyond trust, lies and openness

The MITA project promises that the EmotionMeter will not only ‘catch’ the moods of passers-by but will also assist in solving some topical, even global problems by helping to determine why people do not feel happy. Its focus will not be some depersonalized statistics, but individual emotional reactions – this technological system ‘will measure, collect, and present data about a person’s feelings and emotional states.’

Devices used to detect emotional states by measuring physiological indicators are nothing new: the polygraph, for instance, was invented a long time ago and then discredited. Impressive results, albeit not necessarily precise or correct, can be obtained by measuring the pulse, blood pressure, pupil dilation and micro-movements. On the other hand, accumulation and analysis of biometric data as well as engineering of ever more complex electromagnetic devices may indeed lead to a gradual transformation of Homo sapiens into Homo economicus at some point in the future – if only we decide that happy and easily governable people do in fact constitute the ideal society that we have been dreaming about and would want to become.

In her study Surveillance Capitalism, which discusses the ambivalence and almost unlimited possibilities of information technologies, Shoshana Zuboff offers an exhaustive analysis about the ability of these technologies not only to automate various processes but also to turn them into information. The world itself is transformed into information, whereby new territories of knowledge are created and become the main object of new political conflicts. First, the competition is about the distribution of knowledge: ‘What is known?’ Later conflicts centre on authority: ‘Who determines who gets to know what?’ The third and most important conflict is about power: ‘Who decides who gets to own the final knowing?’ Such questions about knowledge, authority and power have, according to Zuboff, already escaped the walls of our offices, stores, and factories; they now arise to every one of us because they have affected entire societies.8

For now, MITA’s invitation to create a Lithuanian EmotionMeter does not elaborate on how the device, if created, would function. The invitation also explains that at a later stage, a competition would be announced for scientists to join research clusters and be given freedom to experiment.

Perhaps an EmotionMeter will indeed soon materialize in one form or another, and its future buyers and users will probably not really care much which institution issued a patent for the invention or a scientist from which country was granted that patent. Taking into consideration the range of psychological disorders affecting people all over the world, it is unsurprising that the psychological wellbeing of any society is already quite straightforwardly linked to computer technologies.

Devices whose function would be ‘to sort’ emotions (some such devices have already been created) were described in a 2019 European Commission report, entitled 100 Radical Innovation Breakthroughs for the Future. The report, prepared by the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, introduces the newest research whose aim is to develop programmes for facial recognition and decoding of emotional expressions – simply put, much more advanced lie detectors.9

It would be useful to give more thought to potential consequences of interacting with such devices rather than keep chanting abstract slogans about the pursuit of happiness. Both the ROCK project, headed by Kaklauskas, and the hypothetical EmotionMeter seem to be reducing a human being’s inner world to six emotions, which can be identified based on several criteria borrowed from engineering. Their aim – to make people happier and more (economically) useful with the help of such an uncomplicated algorithm – might be rooted in scientific curiosity but obviously lacks ethical and philosophical dimensions.

Curiosity is a universal human feature, but surveillance and the accumulation of data have advanced so much that existing laws, as stated at the beginning of this essay, are unable to ‘catch up’ with the new realities. I am not suggesting that some innovative detectors are necessarily malicious or reprehensible, especially in the times of crisis like the one caused by the current pandemic. Surveillance technologies or devices used for spying are nothing new. However, it seems that, faced with the current crisis, both politicians and non-governmental organizations have made questions about ethical issues much more prominent, raising questions about what is going to be legalized in post-pandemic times.

In other words, what is at stake is how much of its own privacy a society will be ready to sacrifice in order to protect the health of its citizens. When the pandemic was already in full swing, some of the largest IT companies offered to help state healthcare systems to locate individuals and track the trajectories of (possibly) infected people’s movements. If the aim is to contain the spread of the infection, such help is, of course, a positive thing. Nonetheless, the same data can be used in order to determine whether or not individuals are satisfied with, let’s say, some governmental decisions. Thus security experts and technological engineers argue fiercely about the limits to restrictions of privacy, even when such restrictions are necessitated by a crisis. The politics in different countries are also changing and these changes have to be taken into consideration.10 In such a context, a number of deceptions tend to surface and the value of openness is inevitably questioned. At the same time, trust in political leaders can eventually become much more important than any detectors and indexes of happiness.

In times of crises, when people are overcome by existential anxiety, they need adequate political leadership or at least common sense, not new laws, regulations, or amendments. However, there are no simple recipes for how to ensure that. Political populism, sugar-coated with empty promises, creates unreasonable expectations, whereas fear makes people lie and withdraw. It is difficult to reach an agreement about how much trust we should have in experts and in machines, which operate semi-automatically, or in artificial intelligence systems. That their algorithm should be ‘explainable’ and ‘transparent’ is a requirement formulated by the General Data Protection Regulation, a regulation in EU law which was implemented in 2018. One can dream about some smart govtech automation, which would boost people’s happiness by taking at least some burdens from their shoulders. However, behind the screen of ‘objective’ IT, there is always space for various political interests and power games to develop.

It is possible that the most aggressive means of tracking citizens could eventually be perfected by subsuming those innovative ‘tools to boost happiness’ which allow their users to determine not only the exact location of numerous people, but also their individual feelings in real time. Whatever the rhetoric of contemporary politicians, who seek to console, encourage or scare people, we do not know in what ways our future leaders will choose to use our personal data. One thing is clear: when a country’s innovations are based exclusively on technologies, those who prompt the development of smart devices fail to take into consideration that in the future people might not necessarily care that much about the indexes of economic productivity. Today’s visionary recommendations and formulas for boosting the efficiency of employees may lose their appeal .


Creative destruction, an opposite of stability and stagnation, refers to the ability of capitalism to destroy and reconfigure the previous economic order. This concept, widely used by economists and managers, is associated with economist Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of business cycles – of economic growth and decline, when a breakthrough is caused by innovations and new business models unseen before.

MITA, Paskelbtas ikiprekybinis pirkimas: kviečiame sukurti emocijas matuojantį prietaisą (MITA. Announcement of a new pre-commercial procurement: we invite you to create a device to measure emotions),

Vieną išsamiausių kritinių Jausmomačio aprašymų galima aptikti tinklaraštyje, Bloga veganė (One of the most exhaustive critical descriptions of the EmotionMeter has been published on the blog A Bad Vegan),

Valstybės pažangos strategija, Lietuva 2030“. Rodiklių įgyvendinimo apžvalga. Lietuvos Respublikos Vyriausybės kanceliarija 14 January 2019,

Projekto ROCK naujienos: vilniečiai pasimatavo laimės indeksą“, 2019-04-26

MITA, Kviečiame sukurti inovatyvų produktą, skirtą visuomenės psichologinei gerovei stiprinti, 1 July 2019,

J, Naughton, ‘The goal is to automate us: welcome to the age of surveillance capitalism’, The Guardian, 20 January 2019,

100 Radical Innovation Breakthroughs for the Future, European Commission, Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2019, pp. 87–89.

D, Gershgorn, We Mapped How the Coronavirus Is Driving New Surveillance Programs Around the World, One Zero, 4 September 2020,

Published 15 September 2020
Original in Lithuanian
Translated by Kristina Aurylaitė
First published by Kultūros barai 2020/5

Contributed by Kultūros barai © Skaidra Trilupaitytė / Kultūros barai / Eurozine



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