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Can Social Technology Help Make You Happy?

By Giovanni Rodriguez | Forbes

@giorodriguez:  yes, but it depends on what you mean by “happy,” and other key words

In a former life, I was a graduate student in psychology.  It was at a time when the field was undergoing significant change.  Exiting fast, and with great fanfare, were the talking therapies (the legacy of Freud and depth psychology).  Entering fast, with even greater fanfare, were pharmaceuticals, first led by Prozac, followed by new generations of antidepressants.

It was an interesting time for psychotherapy, defined by what I thought was an unfortunate dichotomy: on one side you had folks who believed in mostly human intervention, and on the other you had folks who believed in mostly in technical intervention.  In the abstract, it was “man versus machine,” a simplistic construct that left many people struggling to see the nuanced reality that most certainly exists in between.

There was, in fact, something brewing in an adjacent field of study, known at the time as cognitive therapy.  Led by Aaron T. Beck, a psychiatrist and professor at The University of Pennsylvania, the newish (thought not exactly new) approach to therapy asked people to talk less about the past and reflect more about the present and the faulty thinking that shapes their emotions and behaviors.  If Freud was about man, and medication was about machine, then Beck was about the machine (technique) at the service of man.  One of Beck’s books sold pretty well at the time that Prozac became a household word.  But looking back today, you might get the feeling that Beck might have been a bit ahead of his time.

That is, if you are familiar with a new newish movement called positive psychology.  Led by another University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, positive psychology picks up where cognitive therapy left off and looks at applications for modifying our thinking beyond pathology to the more universal questions regarding what it means to “lead the good life.”   The movement today is growing super fast, with case studies in the workplace, education, and in the military where positive psychology is helping to make service people more resilient to the challenges and crises they face in their everyday work.

In my own work — advising organizations on strategies for empowering their constituents in a number of areas, including personal and professional change — I have been contemplating the role that technology-mediated interventions might play in helping people become more whole.  Now comes a startup called Happify that promises to do just that.  Even more interesting, from my perspective:  Happify not only drafts on the popularity of positive psychology.  The science behind the app is based on it.

Here’s how it works.  First you fill out a simple questionnaire that gauges your ability to deal with different life situations and personal preferences for how you deal. The app then recommends areas where you might choose to focus.  Happify looked at my data and suggested I focus on managing stress (no surprise — my schedule lately has been close to unmanageable).  It then produces a personalized plan for improvement in this area, with an iterative list of activities. I began my regimen this morning by itemizing things around the home for which I am grateful (gratitude — not just an emotion, but a behavior –  is a word you see a lot in the positive psych literature). After the exercise, I received instructions on the next. I am stressed that I only have ten days to complete the module on stress, but I suspect that Happify will be sending me pleasant reminders.

It would be easy to dismiss Happify as an example of what even Seligman sees as trend — “happiosity.”  No shortage of books out there on how to put a smile on your face, and other faces, because apparently smiling is quite contagious.  But before rushing to judgment, let’s try to peel back the layers of the central question in this post:  “can social technology help make you happy?”

First, you need to think about the technology … namely, the science behind the technology.  As the founders of Happify are quick to point out (even as part of the user experience, where you can click on links explaining the research) the assisted journey that the app provides, along with the many activity-based interventions, is based on the young but growing corpus of positive-psychology research.  Personally, I would be happy just knowing that it could work as well as, say, some of the sports-and-health apps that make up the quantified self movement.  But when you make your mission human happiness, it of course helps to align with work in academia.  Second, you need to think about what we mean by “happy.”  Seligman himself has moved away from this term in favor of a more comprehensive approach to wellness and “the good life” (called PERMA) that emphasizes positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement.

I can’t blame the Happify folks for their use of the happy word happy.  The word today is quite happening, and it has some marketing value.  But for me the biggest question revolves around the other h word in my question:  “can social technology help.“  This, I believe, is the right focus for tools like Happify (there will be others) for it throws into relief the balance between man and machine.

In an age when so many people understand that technology can in fact be a distraction from the good life, it’s important to understand the role of tech.  Happify alone can’t make you a more positive, engaged, accomplished, values-driven person who enjoys both a balanced and meaningful life.  But if you take it for what it is — a cool tool for helping you manage — it might actually help.  Machine at the service of man; you can certainly be grateful for that.