When The New York Times' viral sensation "36 Questions That Lead to Love" did the rounds a few years back, entrepreneur Spencer Greenberg did the same thing as lots of other folks: He grabbed his girlfriend and went through the list.
"I had a really meaningful experience when we tried them together," he told me.
But as a mathematician and the founder of ClearerThinking.org, a site dedicated to helping people put psychological research to work in their lives, he had another, more unusual reaction, too. He wondered what other questions could produce deep, meaningful change in people's lives.
His curiosity launched a scientific project that eventually led to a new list of 32 questions. A tool built around them launched this week. Rather than ignite love, Greenberg promises answering these questions will spark life-changing self-insight.
The unexamined life is a bummer
Thousands of years ago, Socrates claimed "the unexamined life is not worth living." Today's psychologists might not go that far, but their work shows that the unexamined life is a whole lot more miserable than it has to be. Lack of self-awareness has been linked with lower happiness, higher anxiety, more emotional instability, and compromised performance. In short, you will be better at just about everything you care about if you know yourself well.
Greenberg quotes organizational psychologist and author Tasha Eurich to explain the value of self-knowledge: "People who are high in internal self-awareness tend to make choices that are consistent with who they really are, allowing them to lead happier and more satisfying lives. Those without it act in ways that are incompatible with their true success and happiness."
How do you get to know yourself? Years of therapy helps, but Greenberg wanted to create a shortcut. Together with his collaborator Amanda Metskas he sourced hundreds of questions aimed at helping people excavate their true values, beliefs, and hangups from coaches, philosophers, therapists, and preexisting lists of questions. The team eliminated duplicate questions and those that seemed unlikely to yield much insight.
Those that remained went through a rigorous two-step vetting process. First, 75 volunteers answered the questions so the team could assess which generated answers that were both thoughtful and suggested concrete future actions. Finally, in a series of quantitative experiments, test subjects were asked to rate the value of each question.
The top 32 questions left standing make up the new life-changing questions tool. Here are a few examples of those that remained:
During what period of your life were you the happiest, and why were you so happy then?
Imagine that you have received a message from a version of yourself five years in the future. What warnings would the message give you, and what advice would it offer about how best to achieve your goals?
What meaningful or important thing should you tell a particular person that you haven't told them yet?
How is the very best version of yourself different from the way you sometimes behave?
What are you taking for granted that you want to remember to be grateful for?
How and why to answer the questions
The premise of "36 Questions That Lead to Love" is dead simple. Sit down with someone and answer all of them and you'll be in love at the end. What end result exactly can those who answer these 32 life-changing questions expect, I asked Greenberg.
"First of all, people really have fun answering them. In one of our studies, 88 percent of participants reported that the experience was enjoyable," he wrote back. "More important, though, answering the questions helps people generate valuable insights."
He offered examples from his research, including one person who understood a lack of gratitude was at the root of their unhappiness, another who vowed to get therapy for out-of-control anxiety, and a third who came to understand she was letting her husband control her life. All that's needed to get these sort of results is a bit of time -- the more effort you devote to the questions, the more you'll get out of them -- and some bracing honesty.
But beyond these sorts of life-changing insights, Greenberg suggests these 32 questions could actually have broader effects on our fractured society.
"Giving people ways to connect with one another about the things that are most meaningful in their lives is important not only for falling in love, but also for building a society where we understand and care about one another," he explained. "This is especially difficult right now when competition for our attention through social media platforms can mean that we have a ton of connections, but those connections may not be fostering empathy. We hope that the Life-Changing Questions can help people connect in more deep and satisfying ways with one another." That's why his team also created a "pen pal mode" that lets people share their answers back and forth.
Interested in getting to know who you really are so you can chart a clearer course in life? Check out all 32 questions here. It's free and, hey, it might just change your life.