"I'm there for you and I care for you," the woman on the other line says to me in a sincere, serene voice. "I know it might be strange to hear that from a stranger."
I'm sampling Happy, an app launching in December that seeks to connect lonely and distressed people to "ordinary folks with extraordinary listening skills" at the lower-than-your-copay price of 40 cents a minute.
My "happy giver" suggests that I start by telling her my story and I do. Mostly she listens, but when I run out of things to say, she asks the appropriate questions, leading me over time to hopeful conclusions, which she distills in summary. Happy promises good listeners, friend-sharing, but the service it provides seems conspicuously like a watered-down form of therapy—amateur shrinks—the "sharing economy" taken to its next logical extreme.
Happy was created by a group of Princeton grads whose backgrounds fall neatly at the intersection between psychology, tech, and marketing. Founder Jeremy Fischbach (a psychology BA) explains that the idea came to him when he was going through a rough patch privately and professionally, and found all his best friends unreachable.
"Wouldn't it be nice if you could tap a button and hear a voice," he recalls, over the phone, "and for that person to give me as much time as I needed? For it to be a regular person with extraordinary abilities, who understood what I was going through? And for all of that to be anonymous, affordable?" In pursuit of that happiness, he reached out to his friend Ely Alvarado, with whom he'd already made a gaming app called Myne, which "incentivizes users to volunteer meaningful data that is valuable to marketers," and recruited a team of seven through his alumni network.
Their product, they assure me via conference call, is not a replacement for therapy, but a bridge to it. Happy isn't intended for the entirety of the emotional spectrum, which the founders lay out from 10 "bliss" to −10 "suicidal." Rather they are looking to cater to the −1 to −5, the mild forms of distress, the people going through life changes, breakups, relocations—the kind of person who wants to talk, but wouldn't call an 800-number.
"You've suffered from loneliness, sadness," Fischbach continues. "[But] did you ever think of calling the National Suicide Hotline?"
They are currently recruiting up to 2,000 contractors—90 percent, so far, happen to be women—and unlike the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, they don't intend to provide them with any meaningful training, relying instead on crowdsourcing for quality control. Happy givers will train each other, sharing the strategies they pick up through a forum in the app, creating a specialized micro-community. (Ostensibly they will also be tasked with supporting one another, in times of need.) Ratings given by the callers will do the rest. A bad rating and you can lose your happy-giving privileges. High ratings get you more calls. Co-founder Emily Rosenzweig, a marketing professor at Tulane with a PhD in social psychology, says they intend to "do a lot of neat things" with the collected data, ensuring better conversations—making sure the recent divorcee speaks to the happy giver specialized in divorce, for example—but that they will not share it with third parties.
The term "sharing economy" is a euphemism for the digital blurring of the line between the professional and private realm, and Happy is just the latest example of this process getting evermore personal. Sharing formats tend to pop up where public infrastructure is lacking—public transport (Uber), urban housing (Airbnb), and, increasingly, mental health services. Dr. Luke Stark, a researcher at Dartmouth College studying emotions and digital media, views Happy "on the continuum of apps seeking to provide mental health services through a digital platform, making them simultaneously more efficient and profitable." He sees it in line with platforms like Talkspace, which connects you via text to a therapist, "except that Happy doesn't even have the pretense of connecting you with an expert," as well as the phenomenon of cuddling services—all giving new meaning to the term emotional labor.
"We're building a service that builds on the very best in human character, this capacity for empathy and compassion," Rosenzweig tells me. Hearing the founders speak like this, I find it hard to discern whether they are true believers or profiteers, only to remember that in start-up culture these approaches tend to be complementary rather than exclusive. Rosenzweig tells me about the loneliness epidemic ravaging the country, which in this context demonstrates both the viability of their product and its good intentions. Sharing Economy startups are never satisfied with making a hot buck—they have to be saving the world a bit in the process.
Their product, they assure me via conference call, is not a replacement for therapy, but a bridge to it.
At least Happy isn't relying wholly on technology to save us. "Unlike other formats," says cultural anthropologist Natasha Schull, author of an upcoming book on digital self-tracking, "they seem to be retaining the human element." In that way, she says, Happy seems to be bucking the trend of mental health apps, most of which are geared toward automation, mood-monitoring algorithms. Happy is almost retro, by comparison—connecting strangers. This is the pleasant side of their product. All marketing talk and cloying positivity aside, in the end you get to talk to a seemingly nice, interested person. Parts of my consultation feel like a first date with the kind of person who wants to fix me. More often, though, I feel like I'm talking to an untrained shrink with liability concerns.
Our call is structured a lot like therapy—empathetic listening, appropriate questions, shared conclusions. This proven formula is pretty enjoyable for the most part—it's fun confessing to a stranger—but my slightly nervous happy maker keeps saying the wrong thing.
I offer her what I think are minor gripes, though she soon makes me feel like they are quite serious. I drone on about how I miss my girlfriend who's in Montreal, how I feel like my social circles have narrowed in the year of our relationship, and she sighs into the phone: "Oof," "Wow," "Oh, I can see how that would be so hard," eventually going somewhat overboard: "Wow, you really are alone. I'm so sorry." I go on about how I don't know where to live—that I suffer from a lack of imagination, always moving between culture capitals. Again, she sees the deeper significance. "I may be off here, but it sounds to me like what you're really looking for is your home." This strikes me as a bit Disney-fied at first, but ever since, at my most sentimental moments, those words echo in my head.
At the end of our call, my happy giver fires me up with a burst of encouragement, telling me how strong I am, strong for thinking about my life, strong for reaching out to her—all signs that I am on the way to solving my problems. Crucially, she hesitates to offer me any advice, even when I ask for it. "In conversation with the founders, I realize that this is policy at Happy. "Advice is annoying," Fischbach summarizes their position. One of Happy's recruiters later breaks it down more straightforwardly for me: "If you're not offering advice, you can't really do any harm."
Psychoanalyst Judd Grill, of Los Angeles, isn't so sure. He characterizes the service as unhelpful at best, harmful at worst. To him, the upside is limited because callers talk to a different happy giver every time and so won't develop the kind of relationships that could actually sustain them. On the downside, he sees "potential for a number of lawsuits. "[Happy givers] may find themselves speaking with someone who has suicidal or homicidal ideation. If a person is not trained, he or she will not be able to read between the lines."
Parts of my consultation feel like a first date with the kind of person who wants to fix me. More often, though, I feel like I'm talking to an untrained shrink with liability concerns.
The Happy founders respond to questions about the preparedness of their recruits by pointing to their rigorous hiring process. "We are vetting a huge population for people who are especially good at providing passionate attention—the crème de la crème," Pam Soffer (BA psychology) assures me. In slight contradiction, Fischbach tells me that the customer and the provider are interchangeable—another sharing economy trope. "A lot of these will be the same people," he says cheerfully, "getting happy one day, giving happy another day. Maybe even on the same day!"
This, incidentally, is how I feel after my consultation. Having gotten happy, I now want to see if I have what it takes to give it. On a pure employment level, this appeals to me. As a writer, I'm always looking for more characters, stories, and, particularly, money.
Happy's hiring process turns out to be more pleasant than thorough. I put on my warmest telephone voice and my most reasonable demeanor and try to imitate the slightly concerned, slightly flirtatious spiel of my happy giver. I tell the interviewer—a contracted recruiter in Texas—that I have experience with break-ups, alienation, loneliness, dislocation, sickness, and feel very comfortable talking to people about it. We proceed to do a mock call. "I don't know you, but I'm here for you," I assure her, trying to mean every word. "If you feel comfortable, do tell me your story." My interviewer does a little spiel about going through a divorce. "Divorces can be so difficult," I say. "You're very strong." My interviewer giggles. She has heard enough. She tells me more about my future employer, which she says is, "basically the Uber of emotional support."
If I weren't writing this article, I might just take the gig. This is an opportunity, after all, to get paid to research humanity, and without having to share my face like an Uber driver. Others may well benefit in my place: lonely people willing to settle for anonymous company, young folks just trying to make an extra buck with an unusual job, or retired folks who feel they have wisdom to dispense—just the accidental poetry that sometimes happens between strangers, even in the drab platform economy.
Happy is on the benign side of our digital deregulation craze, more or less. Unlike Uber or Lyft, its contractors don't have to buy cars that could wreck them financially; unlike Airbnb, its service won't price the poor out of America's inner cities. I'm not worried about shrinks going postal over Happy. Instead, I'm concerned that rich people will continue to get high-end mental health treatment while the rest of us keep ourselves barely hanging on, one phone call at a time.
Follow Leon Dische Becker on Twitter.
Correction (11/25/16): The original headline 'This App Is Like Uber but for Unlicensed Therapists' was incorrect. Happy does not advertise itself as connecting users with therapists, but rather with "everyday people who are good at providing attention, compassion, and encouragement." The headline has been changed to reflect this distinction.