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Happiness Apps: Actually a Huge Bummer

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
Yahoo Tech
May 7, 2014

Happiness Apps: Actually a Huge Bummer

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
Yahoo Tech
May 7, 2014

Apparently, the time has come to put the “app” in “happy.”

Happify is the most recent attention-getting example of the proliferating category of Web-based services whose goal is to improve your mood and general outlook: It’s an app (and an online platform of sorts) that promises to make you happier, by funneling the relevant “science of happiness” through the latest technology.

Other examples include Happier, Happy Habits, MoodKit, TrackYourHappiness, SuperBetter, and GPS for the Soul. Throw in tech tools aimed at meditation, mindfulness, and so on, and there’s enough material for an annual conference on the subject.

(And, in fact, there is an annual conference on the subject. It’s called “Wisdom 2.0.”)

The underlying problem is spelled out in a stressfully long and detailed infographic created by Happify. Basically, we are worried and anxious, especially about work and money, and it would be good for our collective health if we could spend more time laughing, bonding with friends, and exercising. Who could disagree?

C’mon, get appy
The real question is whether apps, games, and other digital tools are actually a useful response. So to familiarize myself with the general idea of app-iness, I signed up for Happify. I was surprised to find that it wanted me to register through Facebook and, even when I didn’t, encouraged me to make my activities public within the Happify community. (“Hey everybody! I am unhappy, but working on it! Online! Wanna watch?” I don’t think so.)

Anyway, I answered a short questionnaire evidently designed to dope out my general emotional state. And when I was done, Happify said it had just spotted an old friend across the room and would be right back — then disappeared forever.

Kidding! Actually it herded me toward the first of many Happify exercises, which involved noting (and “cherishing”) three “victories” during my day: “These need not be ultra-magnificent game-changing shifts, just any pleasant surprises that brightened your day and made the journey seem worthwhile. … Anything that lifted your spirits, even for a short while.”

Happify

At 9 a.m., when I signed up, all I could think of was my wife’s generous offer to run some stuff to the post office for me. So I typed that up. By the time lunch had come and gone, I was wondering if I should just add, “Our dog is so cute!” or “Nice weather today!” But that seemed pathetic.

SEE ALSO: 7 Digital Tools that Might Actually Ease Your Stress

As I waited for more “pleasant surprises” to emerge, I trudged onward through digital fields of happy-making. Track Your Happiness is in effect a research project from Harvard’s psychology department: It checks in with you via an iPhone app, and asks (basically) what you’re doing and how happy you are. The idea is to generate a “report” drawing on your data and that of other people to help you “find out what factors — for you personally — are associated with greater happiness.”

Track Your Happiness

Happier is set up as a series of “courses.” One called Everyday Grateful provides a daily “gratitude activity,” along with “tips and advice” via your phone. After three weeks, you should have learned to incorporate more gratitude into your general mind-set — which is good, because “more than 11,000 research studies” show that this “can improve your well-being.” Happy Habits involves audio lessons in happiness, an “affirmations” journal, happiness suggestions based on cognitive-behavioral therapy research — and a 119-question Happiness Assessment.

Click all your blues away
As these descriptions suggest, most of these apps and services link their activities to some kind of psychology research. In a smaller number of cases, the effectiveness of the technology itself is being actively studied: The digital game SuperBetter, designed to reduce anxiety and depression, is the subject of two clinical trials, one forthcoming and the other suggesting that the game does help at least some players. But hard data about this category (beyond customer reports, which hardly fall into the realm of the “scientific”) is, at this point, pretty rare.

Happify says Happify users are happy with Happify.

GPS for the Soul, meanwhile, has what I suppose I’ll call a more spiritual vibe. The main attraction is a variety of “guides,” such as breathing exercises and meditation strategies and the like. One guide, titled “Hope,” basically consisted of New Agey music and a softly pulsing image of a candle. Another starts with the instruction: “Close your eyes.” I don’t know what happened after that, because my eyes were closed. More tangibly, the app also has a tool for monitoring your heart rate and a stream of articles such as “6 Relaxation Tips to Help You Sleep.”

“Hope,” on GPS for the Soul

If it makes you appy
By the time I’d sorted through all this, the workday was winding down, and I realized I hadn’t yet come up with a second “daily victory” to report to Happify. I thought about entering “Got some research done.”

Instead, I just closed the window. Look, I’m sure that certain personality types might find these apps and services useful. But, frankly, they bum me out. A happiness regimen feels like another chore, and the idea that I need to master “5 skills” to cheer up, or whatever, strikes me as depressing. This whole genre makes happiness feel like a test. A test that never ends.

In other words, these offerings arguably amplify the problem they’re supposed to mitigate — “the great national happiness rat race,” as Ruth Whippman called it. Reducing “happiness” to a series of tasks, prompts, and scores hardly seems the most productive response.

The new tools of happiness and contentment are often positioned as a kind of jujitsu — technology is supposedly a big part of what’s making everyone so anxious, but now we can use it to wipe our techno-cares away.

I’m skeptical about this solution, and I’m not sure I even buy the premise of the supposed problem. Honestly, technology makes me happy every day! Sure it brings some stresses — but addressing them with digital cures seems roughly equivalent to developing a variety of whiskey that reduces alcohol craving.

Better to just be smarter (or more “mindful,” if you like) about how we use the technology we have. So shut off your email and watch some adorable cat videos. You’ll be happy you did.

SEE ALSO: 7 Digital Tools that Might Actually Ease Your Stress

Write to me at rwalkeryn@yahoo.com or find me on Twitter, @notrobwalker. RSS lover? Paste this URL into your reader of choice: https://www.yahoo.com/tech/author/rob-walker/rss.