A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jul 24, 2016

Can This App Make Me Happier?

The societal norm is that we are expected to be happy. When we are not, it is something we are expected to do something about. So happiness sells.

But there is no data supporting the contention that mobile apps can make anyone happier. The challenge is that tech culture has, since the dotcom era, promoted the notion that if you are critical of some new innovation it is probably because 'you don't get it,' not because there is anything wrong with the product or service.

Time and research will determine whether solutions are possible. In the meantime, there is definitely an app for that. JL

Julie Beck reports in The Atlantic:

The active, methodical pursuit of happiness is so normalized in U.S. culture that it may encourage people who are truly unhappy to try to change their situation. There’s a bit of a placebo effect with these activities—if you believe they’ll make you happier, they probably will. Of course you can measure happiness, the question is whether it’s useful or not. It’s a fine line between helping people and preying on their dissatisfaction.
“Happiness. It’s winnable.” This is the dubious assertion that greets me on the Happify website, before I click “Start my journey” and sign up for the service.
I begin my journey in January. It seems like as good a time as any to try to become happier. The holidays are over. The long, bleak, shut-in months of winter stretch ahead of me. Few of the variables in my life are likely to change. There is unlikely to be a new job or relationship, or a move that would skew my happiness readings one way or another. Of course you can’t measure your happiness in a vacuum—and you probably wouldn’t be very happy in a vacuum anyway—but if there really is an app that can make you happier, I wanted to try it when my life was relatively stable. I decided to do it for a month.
Happify is a self-improvement program offered in both website and app form. It claims “your emotional well-being can be measured,” measures it for you, and provides little tasks and games to help you increase it. The company was founded by Ofer Leidner and Tomer Ben-Kiki, who previously ran an online gaming company called iPlay. About four years ago, Leidner and Ben-Kiki developed an interest in positive psychology and mindfulness, and wondered if they could pair it with their online gaming expertise. According to Leidner, they thought, “the models for delivering anything around mental health were clearly, in our mind at least, ripe for some disruption.”
Happify is technically free, but to access more advanced options, and detailed statistics, you have to pay—$11.99 a month (or less if you sign up for six months or a year all in one go).
On day one of my experiment, I felt fine. I know because in my notes I wrote, “I feel … fine.” I usually feel fine. There may be people in this world who experience a range of deep and intense emotions on an average day, but I am not one of those people. In the end our hearts are black boxes, known only to ourselves. My heart is usually fine.
After answering some questions about my age, work, relationship, and child-bearing status, as well as things like “Do you have a hard time bouncing back after adversity?” and “Do you ever pause and say ‘Gee my life is pretty darn boring?’” Happify recommends some “tracks” to me.  (Surveys like this always make me overthink everything—it’s like taking a pop quiz where you know the material, but there’s still the nagging doubt of “Is this right, though?”) I choose a track called “Nurture Your Body and Soul,” despite the title, because it’s free.
My home screen now had a list of activities available for me, plus a preview of upcoming ones, and then a box called “My Skills,” which contains five Candyland-colored symbols: A purple ice-cream cone labeled “Savor,” an orange handshake (Thank), a blue mountain (Aspire), a green present (Give), and a red heart with a hand on it (Empathize). Each has a corresponding status bar that would fill up like a thermometer the more activities I did. I hadn’t done any yet, so all of mine were empty.
The program includes 60 tracks users can choose from. Each track is themed, divided into parts—there are usually four parts to a track— and then further divided into activities, which include everything from guided meditations to reflective writing assignments to games. You don’t have to complete them all to move on to the next part if you don’t want to.
There are 58 “core activities,” according to Happify’s chief scientist, Acacia Parks, a professor of psychology at Hiram College. Parks designed the activities herself, “based on my reading of the literature,” she says, and they’re customizable. In one track, you may be told to write about something you’re looking forward to generally. In a track that focuses on building relationships, you may be asked to write about something you’re looking forward to doing with a friend. If you include all the variations on the core 58, there are about 1,200 different activities on the app.
Shortly after I started my track, I house-sat my friend’s apartment for a few days, feeding her hamster and watering her plants while she was on vacation. “You’ve been complaining about your roommates a lot,” she said. “I thought you might like to spend some time alone.” And boy, was she right. I share a big, comfortable townhouse with four other people, as is the custom among young people in D.C.. I love my roommates (when they’re not leaving dishes out), but I’ve never lived alone. The only time I experience the peace and freedom of absolute solitude, the kind that can’t possibly be interrupted by someone else coming home, is in hotels.
I spent a happy few days in my friend’s apartment, loudly singing Taylor Swift off-key, watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries while the hamster ran around in his ball, and taking long baths without worrying that I was keeping someone from using the toilet.
My Happify activities over these few days included a couple writing exercises about gratitude. Research suggests that writing a few sentences about what I was thankful for—some space and solitude and goshdang peace and quiet—would make me feel more positive emotions, and help me savor my experiences more. I wasn’t sure at the time if the exercises made me feel better or not—I was feeling relaxed and predisposed to gratitude anyway, but six months later I remember the time fondly, so perhaps I savored it after all.
The description of each activity includes a link that says “Why it works” with a little Erlenmeyer flask symbol by it. Clicking it brings up a paragraph describing the research the activity is based on, and a link to a list of the study or studies in question.  The studies vary in quality—some have large sample sizes, some small. Some are more directly relevant to the activity than others. But it’s an impressively large grab bag of happiness research. There are cognitive behavioral studies alongside research in mindfulness and positive psychology.
It is very important to the Happify team that their product is research-based. “We do not try to create any science,” Leidner says. “We are essentially delivering interventions that are evidence-based and peer-reviewed. Our role is to liaise between the ivory tower—the scientific academic institutions that work on developing these interventions—and consumers.”
Before Leidner and Ben-Kiki approached her about getting involved with Happify, Parks had been involved in other online happiness ventures, which ultimately failed. “It seemed like the science was in a place where it was time to start making this stuff available to the general public,” she says. Parks told me she was initially skeptical that the app would be scientific enough. But once Leidner and Ben-Kiki convinced her they were committed to making Happify research-based, she was in.
appify is not a clinical mental health treatment. “We are able to actually treat people with low and moderate depressive symptoms on this platform,” Leidner tells me. But for legal reasons, they can’t market it that way. Instead, it’s portrayed as a service for people who just … want to be happier.
But outside of going to therapy, is it possible to make yourself happier, just through sheer will and effort? Even if your external circumstances don’t change at all, can an interior redecorating improve your well-being in a real and lasting way?
The ultimate goal, it seems, is what some researchers call “flourishing,” which is, as one study puts it, a “state of optimal mental health” in which people “experience positive emotions regularly, excel in their daily lives, and contribute to the world around them in constructive ways.” For most people, there’s some room for improvement. In the Harris Poll’s 2015 Happiness Index survey, just 34 percent of Americans say they are “very happy.” (This has been the case for some time: As of a 1999 Surgeon General’s report, only 17 percent of U.S. adults had “optimal mental health.”)
Doing little activities can help improve well-being, sort of like filling out a happiness workbook. One meta-analysis of 51 of these “positive interventions” found that they “significantly enhance well-being and decrease depressive symptoms.” These included mindfulness activities, positive writing activities, and goal-setting. Other studies suggest that counting blessings, writing thank-you notes, and finding new ways to use your strengths can make you happier. Versions of all these activities are included in Happify.
On my third day using the app, it has me take a “signature strengths” assessment, developed by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, who is often called the father of positive psychology. It’s a classic personality test in that it just gives you a bunch of declarative statements like “I never quit a task before it’s done,” and then you say whether that’s (very) like or unlike you. Or neutral. According to the quiz, my five “signature strengths,” in order, are: Love of Learning, Humor, Judgment, Perspective, and Honesty. That seems reasonable. Judgment and Perspective seem a nicer way of framing overthinking and Honesty a nicer way of framing oversharing, both of which I am excellent at. As for the others, I’m obviously hilarious, and the best part of being a journalist, I’ve always thought, is getting paid to learn about whatever interests you.
Several of Happify’s activities incorporate these strengths. In one, I am asked to use them to deal with stress at work. (I try to invoke “perspective” for that one—what does it matter if people aren’t reading one article when one day we will all be dead?)
Some of the activities feel like they’re working; others seem dumb. It does help to be prompted to step back and realize that I probably won’t remember or care about whatever I’m obsessing over today in a month. When my mind is spinning threads of worry into tapestries of awful speculation, it does help a little to stare at a waterfall on my phone while a soothing yet slightly stilted woman’s voice tells me to breathe. It does help to write a little paragraph trying to reframe my petty jealousies as motivation to work harder on things I care about. Although typing it out on my phone’s tiny keyboard is a little inefficient.
But there are many activities that are less than helpful. One aims to help me get “excited” about my “day-to-day routines,” but offers no guidance on how to do so beyond “see if you can come up with a new attitude.” An activity that is supposed to help me “empathize with a different viewpoint” asks me to “think of a friend who’s never experienced the fitness activity of your choice” and consider why they might not like it. I can hardly imagine a lower-stakes empathy activity. Needless to say, no breakthroughs there.
Then there’s this game, Negative Knockout. It’s fun, but here’s the thing: It’s Angry Birds. You take the Candyland balls from the homepage—the purple Savor ice cream cone, etc.—and using a slingshot, you fling them at little pink, orange, and brown puffballs with worried cartoon faces. The main difference is that the puffballs hold signs that bear words representing your worries. You can choose from pre-selected signs—“loneliness,” “frustration,” “stress,” or write your own words on the signs. The puffballs are balanced on structures made of wood and glass, and well, you know the rest.
When I ask Leidner about Negative Knockout’s uncanny parallels with Angry Birds, he tells me that in game design, many games often have similar “core mechanics.” This flinging-things-at-other-things mechanic seemed like a good way to game-ify research that’s found writing down your worries, then crumpling up the paper and throwing it away, helps people get negative thoughts out of their head.
I’m not sure it translates. I don’t feel like I’m getting rid of my worries so much as distracting myself by playing a game. One time I write my exes’ names on all the signs and throw the balls at those. This increases my enjoyment of the game considerably, but it is probably not what they were going for.
“When I hear ‘shoot the puffballs of the negative thoughts in your head,’ I’m a little skeptical,” says Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. “I work with prisoners in San Quentin and their heads are filled with negative thoughts, and my hunch is they need to do deeper work than that.”
My reaction to the game is similar to my reaction to most of the activities: This was fine, but I’d rather have done something else. Are they good for me anyway? Is it like eating your happiness vegetables?


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