FYI.

This story is over 5 years old.

Can a ‘Positive Psychology’ App Make You Happy?

A skeptic's review.

Banish the self-help wizards and priests; the Happiness Enlightenment has arrived. It is, of course, an app.

Happify, one of a relatively new class of mobile mood-boosters, isn't based on philosophy or religion but on the empirical science of "positive psychology."

"Happify creates games and activities based on scientific research as a way to teach people how to be happier and more fulfilled," a representative said in an email. In the past year, the company says it has grown to more than 500,000 members.

Advertisement

Given that happiness is a life-long pursuit—or maybe longer, since philosophers from Aristotle to Michel de Montaigne don't believe you can call someone happy until after they're dead—and apps are synonymous with convenience and speed, I was skeptical.

There's just something so yuppie, so self-involved, so frivolous about seeking happiness as an end in and of itself, even though that's what Aristotle says we're all doing anyway. Maybe it's a Maslow Hierarchy/First World Problem thing, as if "happiness" is only something you can look for once you're fed and indoors. Maybe it's just my Protestant upbringing, which valorized suffering, or philosophy classes, which made me a snob. For whatever reason, happiness is like the Sun—not to be faced dead on.

For all of these reasons, the phrase "positive psychology" makes my skin crawl. It evokes late-night infomercials and giving yourself pep talks in the mirror—"I'm go​od enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!"—but it's nevertheless a real, if young, academic field.

The name was coined in 1998 by then-president of the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman. Given its spread across American universities, Seligman has been praised for his promotional talents as well as his brilliance as a psychologist.

Happiness has both an emotional and a cognitive component, said Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at University of California, Riverside, and a full-time researcher studying "happiness, well-being, and the science of happiness."

Advertisement

"You need to have both of those components: the sense that your life is going well and the relatively frequent experience of positive emotion," she told me.

True to its stated scientific roots, Happify defines happiness the same way. Note that these are both self-reported metrics. Though science is the search for the objective and the repeatable, happiness is firmly subjective.

Happify starts with a 13-question survey to determine who you are, what's keeping you from happiness, and what needs to be shorn up. It asks for your basic demographic information, how social you are—which positive psychology has found is big indicator of happiness—how much you focus on the past, present, and future, stuff like that.

After getting my info, it recommended "Conquer Your Negative Thoughts" by Derrick Carpenter, who "holds a B.S. in Mathematics from MIT and a Master of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania," where the field's founder, Seligman now directs the positive psychology department. The track description promised to tune me "into the radio station in your mind that's playing negative music, so you can change the lyrics."

In my first Activity, I clicked on hot air balloons that carried positive words

Happify rewards you with Silver or Gold medals for finishing your track within 10 days, depending on how many "Activities" you complete. In my first Activity, I clicked on hot air balloons that carried positive words. I got 1280, because I'm awesome at reading, pointing, and clicking. Feels good to win, I thought.

Advertisement

My next activity was called "Today's Victories." Its description told me to "Get ready to do something that sounds like a cliché," (I was) and asked me to identify positive moments in my day.

Cliché or not, the scientific literature, cited on Happify and elsewhere, supports it.

I asked Lyubomirsky if maybe this was just cognitive happiness, since to be grateful you'd have to think about good things in your life. She said there was more to it.

"Write a gratitude letter and you feel more connected," she said. "You recall good memories, it makes you feel joyful."

This is probably Happify's true potential—the constant pestering to take stock of the positive things in your life. Just like with the news, the negative ones get most of my attention, which makes sense.

"We need to feel anger or rage sometimes because that might prompt us to do something about injustice in the world," Lyubomirsky said. "And you need to feel anxious sometimes. Anxiety is necessary or else we won't ever buckle down and study for that test. Sometimes we need to feel sad because sadness is an indicator that something is wrong and there's a problem we need to focus and solve."

But Kurt Vonnegut, or at least his Uncle Alex, nailed the problem with this. "One of the things [Uncle Alex] found objectionable about human beings was that they so rarely noticed it when they were happy," Vonnegut said in a graduation address. "He himself did his best to acknowledge it when times were sweet. We could be drinking lemonade in the shade of an apple tree in the summertime, and Uncle Alex would interrupt the conversation to say, 'If this isn't nice, what is?'"

Advertisement

Interpreted most charitably, Happify, if you stick to its regimen, functions as a sort of Uncle Alex.

Still, it's hard for me to imagine taking stock of my life and thinking "it's going well, because this app told me it was," especially an app which is always trying to funnel you toward paying for the premium version.

I'll be the first to admit I'm a cynical asshole, but asking someone to pay $72 to "See How You Compare Against Others & Get Personal Activity Recommendations" when there is a track called "Stop Comparing Yourself to Others & See the Good in Life" on another page seems disingenuous at best. That's the thing about science. It's very easily co-opted by commerce.

I ended up with a silver medal in my track because there weren't enough free activities to get me to Gold. Being runner-up in a one man race didn't feel great.

By day two of Happify, I had gotten a 53 on my "happiness evaluation." "You're Getting By" it said, "but you could be embracing life and living with more optimism, less stress, and more confidence on a regular basis." The happy face next to the evaluation that was a straight line.

I stared back and tried to remind myself of how feeling better than stuff is really what makes me feel happy. But then I looked over the things that had made my day better. Chatting with my girlfriend, chilling with the dog, getting in some minutes of guitar before work. Perhaps in spite of myself, perhaps in spite of Happify, I asked myself, "if that's not nice, what is?"