“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.
In the end our hearts are black boxes, known only to ourselves. My heart is usually fine.
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.
Why So Many Smart People Aren’t Happy
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?
There’s a bit of a placebo effect with these activities—if you believe they’ll make you happier, they probably will.
“A lot of these positive activities, they do make you feel better in the moment,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. (There is a track on Happify based on some of her research.) “But what research shows is that those moments, even though they might be transient, they have recursive effects. They create what we call ‘upward spirals.’”
Maybe you write a little paragraph about something you’re grateful for, and it reminds you to thank a friend when they do you a favor, and that improves your relationship with that person, and that makes you happier. So deliberately doing the activities is manually flapping a butterfly’s wings, trying to create good ripples.
But it might not work, if I have a bad attitude. Which admittedly, I sometimes do. Like with the exercise thing. There’s a bit of a placebo effect with these activities—if you believe they’ll make you happier, they probably will.
“It’s partly an effort and commitment effect,”Lyubomirsky says. “If you think this is going to make you happier, you’re going to put more time and energy and commitment into it, keep at it, and not quit it.”
f you find something that works for you, more power to you. But there’s reason to suspect that it won’t work forever. Humans are notoriously adaptable, and the initial happiness boost that you get from something—like a promotion or a vacation—can quickly wear off. This effect is known as the hedonic treadmill, aptly named to describe why people can feel like they’re walking in place, happiness-wise, even as their lives from the outside seem to improve. A classic psychology study from 1978 compared lottery winners to a control group and found that the lottery winners were no happier than the controls.
Other research suggests that adaptation may not work the same way for everyone and that long-term changes to happiness are possible. The benefit someone receives from an activity like those on Happify could be short-lived, especially if it’s repetitive, but a study by Lyubomirsky found that doing a variety of activities may help stave off adaptation.
Happify isn’t the only app trying to help people improve their well-being. There is a ton of mental health software out there now: About 29 percent of “disease-specific mobile health apps” are focused on mental health, Nature reports, and while Happify is not a treatment, it is trying to improve people’s mental health. Happify has been downloaded more than 3 million times. As of this writing, when you search ‘Happiness’ in Apple’s app store, it’s the second result, behind one called Happier that is mainly a gratitude journal, with some happiness “courses” also available for purchase. Many of the apps I’ve seen that are in a similar wheelhouse to Happify tend to focus on a single strategy—gratitude, or meditation, say—or are targeted toward specific conditions. A wide-ranging, research-based general happiness app is pretty unique.
The Startup That Wants to Cure Social Anxiety
Unfortunately, “there is currently a sparse evidence base supporting mobile mental health’s use,” a 2015 review of the literature found. The review called the concept “promising,” but “I think that we haven’t fully realized that potential in a scientific, evidence-based, reproducible manner,” says John Torous, one of the study’s authors and chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s work group on smartphone app evaluation. “It may be a case where the hype has gotten a little bit ahead of the clinical evidence.”
In January 2016, the makers of Lumosity, a brain-training app, settled with the Federal Trade Commission for $2 million over false advertising charges. Lumosity had widely claimed that the games in its app would help sharpen the mind, improve performance on mental tasks, and stave off cognitive decline.
“But Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads,” Jessica Rich, the director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a press release.
Brain-training games in general have not been found to actually improve performance or intelligence outside of the game itself. A 2013 meta-analysis found that the skills developed in these games did not generalize—that is, you can get better at playing that game, but it’s probably not going to help you with anything else.
I wondered if perhaps the Happify games were the same. Would clicking on balloons of positive words actually make me notice more positive things in my surroundings? (I do not believe it did, though I got pretty good at that game.) Would hunting for hidden pictures in a peaceful scene help me focus on details and “stop ruminating or thinking negative thoughts?” (I think it may have, at least in the form of a diversion.)
The problem is this is all subjective. The only measure I have to tell me if Happify is working is Happify’s own.
very two weeks, Happify gives you a “happiness check-in,” an assessment designed by Parks. It includes two lines of questioning. One is about how satisfied you feel—from very dissatisfied to very satisfied—with different aspects of your life (work, relationships, leisure, the general “conditions of your life.”) The second asks how often you’ve felt different clusters of emotions (“Sad, guilty, or lonely” is one; “serene, grateful, or relaxed” is another) in the past month, with answers ranging from “never” to “every day.” Your happiness score, out of 100, is an average of the life satisfaction measurement and the positive emotion measurement.
Parks says she based the Happify scale on existing measures of happiness, and did a validation study to make sure “it correlates very strongly with the things that are used in research.”
On my first happiness check-in, my score was 43—life satisfaction a little higher, positive emotion a little lower. My score comes with the proclamation that I “need a happiness boost,” and is accompanied by this face: ? . But of course this little man and I are already acquainted: He is consistently one of my most used emojis.
By Happify’s metric, I was below the midpoint, and just below the average user’s initial score of 45.8. But as previously mentioned, I felt fine! I said I was “a little dissatisfied” with my relationships (I’m currently single; Happify can’t change that. Maybe Tinder could, but we’re not going there today.) I said I “never” felt “joyous, exuberant, inspired, or awestruck” in the past month, but it felt like those words should be reserved for extreme experiences, which I couldn’t say I’d had that month. But I felt “serene, grateful, or relaxed” pretty frequently and I was somewhere in the “satisfied” range for all the other life domains. Was that not actually that good? How can you even measure something as ephemeral and interior and intangible as happiness?
“Of course you can measure happiness,” says Will Davies, a senior lecturer of politics at Goldsmiths University of London and author of the book The Happiness Industry. “Measurement is always a type of abstraction and a type of simplification, and you can apply it wherever you like. The question is whether it’s useful or not.”
There are reasons to doubt the validity of the scores produced by this survey. For one thing, it asks the user to recall their emotional state over the past month, which is a long time. And people’s memories of past emotions can be colored by current emotions. Even if I’m paying close attention, how well can I remember how often I felt anxious or inspired in the past 30 days?
There are also some who would say that physiological indicators, like heart rate and facial expressions, are more objective ways of measuring emotion than self-report. (Though that is obviously something that’s harder to do with an app.) But Keltner, who errs on the side of preferring physiological measurements for emotions says, “We’ve learned that those simple self-reports predict a great deal of outcomes that really matter. Even though I’m usually a skeptic of self-report measures, when it comes to happiness, those do a pretty good job.”
“I think happiness surveys, they do capture something,” Davies adds. My Happify score is probably not a full, detailed portrait of my emotional life and well-being, but it’s probably not totally meaningless either.
Still, there’s something strange about this self-analysis that takes time to make itself clear to me. After a couple of these happiness check-ins, I started to feel like maybe my life satisfaction score was too low. I’m gainfully employed in a job I love, doing work that’s meaningful to me; I can afford to buy everything I need and most of what I want; I have no serious health problems; I have a good relationship with my family; I have a good number of friends in the city where I live, and more scattered around the country, ripe for the visiting. It’s a comfortable life, even if sometimes I flail around and get tangled up in it, like an insomniac tossing and turning in a king-sized bed.
If the pursuit of happiness is also the flight from sadness, that doesn’t bode well for well-being.
Maybe I was ungrateful, I thought. Maybe I should nudge my ranking higher. Who was I to be dissatisfied? On the one hand, that was probably a good realization for me to have. On the other hand, it felt like I was losing my grip on what I actually thought and felt by questioning it too much.
Davies writes about this kind of self-monitoring as splitting the self down the middle. Trying to feel my feelings and analyze them at the same time, while comparing them to all the feelings I’ve felt before is a dizzying recursive loop. You can end up thinking about what your mind is doing, or what your emotions are doing, as though they aren’t part of you.
“There are a lot of people in the self-help and happiness world who speak about your brain as being this other alter ego that has its own agenda, and you need to understand it, and nurture it, and train it,” Davies says. “Philosophically, it doesn’t make any sense. You end up attributing all of this personhood that you’d otherwise attribute to yourself, to this particular organ in your body.”
f you’ve seen Inside Out, or just been alive for a while, you’ve probably learned that negative emotions are important. It would be unrealistic, not to mention unhealthy, to try to banish them. If the pursuit of happiness is also the flight from sadness, that doesn’t bode well for well-being.
“We’re not about this kind of, walk around with a smiley face all day,” Leidner says. But Happify does encourage a kind of gaming of happiness. The check-in survey doesn’t deduct points for the negative emotions you experience, but the more negative emotions you feel, the fewer points you get overall.
One of Happify’s frequently-occurring activities is a game called Uplift, in which you watch a bunch of hot air balloons drift across a landscape (Level One is “Desert Winds,” perhaps evoking the dry and dusty state of my interior at the beginning of my journey?). The balloons have words on them, and you’re supposed to click on the positive words and let the negative ones float away. This is based on eye-tracking studies that have found that people in a good mood are more likely to pay attention to positive stimuli. (The word choices are sometimes a little dubious—is “nonchalant” really a bad word? And I see you using “Happify” in there as a positive word.)
There are many elements of Happify designed to steer the user away from the negative and toward the positive. Which makes sense! This is what people are signing up for, after all. But this isn’t a great strategy for everyone all of the time.
Julie Norem, a professor of psychology at Wellesley College studies “defensive pessimism,” a strategy some people use to prepare themselves for situations that make them anxious. Rather than thinking positively about an upcoming presentation or vacation, reassuring themselves that everything’s going to be alright, defensive pessimists instead think through every possible thing that could go wrong, which helps them mentally prepare for challenges, and feel calmer. “When we do studies where we put defensive pessimists in more positive moods, they actually perform more poorly,” Norem says. Actively pushing yourself to be positive, if you’re not naturally so inclined, doesn’t always help.
Leidner points out that evolution built people to focus more on negative things, to keep a wary eye out for threats lest we be eaten or mauled or poisoned by eating the wrong berry, though the grocery store will mostly sort that last one out for you these days. And it’s true that good things often pass but briefly through the mind while negative things linger like a bad odor, and there’s something to be said for working on inviting the good things to take off their coats and stay a while.
Reframing negative thoughts and experiences to find something positive in them is a common activity on Happify, in therapy, and in research, which suggests it benefits mental health. But some research shows that it depends on the context—trying to find the positive in negative events you can’t control seems to be good, but when the problem is something you can change or control, like bad grades, reappraisal might just keep you from being motivated to try to fix the problem. As in a famous web comic by KC Green, you may end up sitting at a desk with your coffee mug surrounded by fire, saying, “This is fine.” One study also found that people who looked at things with a positive bias were more likely to have depressive symptoms, if they experienced severely stressful events.
Other research suggests that the key to well-being is not feeling positive emotions more often than negative emotions, or trying to turn negativity into positivity, but rather feeling a wide variety of emotions, a concept that June Gruber, a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, calls “emodiversity.” Much like biodiversity (an abundance of different species of plants and animals) makes an environment resilient, emodiversity appears to make one’s internal environment resilient, too.
She’s found that people with greater emodiversity have better physical and mental health. “They actually fared worse if they had an imbalance of negative emotions at the expense of positive or positive at the expense of negative,” she says. “It’s not saying you have to experience everything in vivid living color every day, that might be taxing our emotional system, but just that you have some hint or flavor of these emotions.”
So often we assume that happiness equals emotional health, a conflation that is particularly endemic to American culture.
he idea that happy is something you should be, and can become through your own efforts wasn’t always as dominant as it is now.
“Happiness at the dawn of Western history was largely a matter of chance,” writes Darrin McMahon, a professor of history at Dartmouth College, in his book Happiness: A History. In the time of the first known book of Western history, Herodotus’s The Histories, written in 440 B.C,, happiness was something that might be bestowed on you by the gods or by fate, if you were lucky.
“I like to point out that the word for happiness in every Indo-European language is a cognate for luck,” McMahon says. In English, “happy” comes from the Old Norse word “happ,” meaning “chance” or “good luck.”
Sometimes happ-enstance does throw you a bone. There was a huge blizzard on the East Coast this January—perhaps you heard about it. I’m from Michigan so I have a particular predilection for snow already—fresh, loose snow that puffs up around your ankles as you walk through it; dense, frozen fields of it with crackles along the top; snow under streetlights that falls like glitter rain; tiny flakes that scatter icy freckles across your nose. But there’s nothing like a blizzard. This was my second huge one—the first was in Chicago in 2011—and I swear it’s the closest thing there is to a pause button for life. I was stuck at home for nearly a week, working from home, wearing out my collection of fuzzy socks and watching movies with my increasingly stir-crazy roommates while we took turns shoveling out the porch and sidewalk every couple hours.
I live on a busy street, where fire trucks and ambulances regularly scream by and there are almost always people somewhere in your field of vision. But I might as well have been shoveling snow in Narnia. I felt suddenly, completely severed from the artificially heated, sweatpants and hot chocolate coziness just behind me inside. The wide and empty street was quickly being erased, and so was my shoveling work. The air was so thick with snow that it was opaque past a few yards. The world was determined to be a blank page. I couldn’t have made this moment happen, and I couldn’t have stopped it, either. I was happy to stand like a dot in the middle of it, the only dot I could see anywhere.
‘Americanitis’: The Disease of Living Too Fast
A shift in Western attitudes toward happiness came during the Enlightenment, when people started to think about it as something attainable, rather than a peak condition of humanity that had to be granted to you by some outside force. “It was in that period that considerable numbers of men and women were introduced to the idea that they could be happy—that they should be happy—in this life,” McMahon writes.
Individualism persists in the West, and studies across the years show that Americans value happiness very highly, see obtaining it as an important, bordering on essential, goal, and regard it as vital to living a good life. In comparison to East Asian cultures, Americans value happiness and other positive emotions more, and think more frequently about whether their life is a happy one.
Desire and effort to obtain happiness are not unique to the United States, of course, but it is a place where the standard is relentless cheer and optimism, where the answer to the question of work is to “follow your bliss,” where manic pop songs proclaim “this is the best day of my life” and “I gotta feeling tonight’s gonna be a good night” and tell you to “clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth,” where the expected answer to “How are you?” is always “Good!” even when happiness is not the truth.
“The novelty of America, in other words, lay not in the perennially restless pursuit of happiness but in the extension of that pursuit to an entire culture on a scale hitherto unknown,” McMahon writes.
“Happiness is like sex in that it’s something that everybody wants, and it always sells.”
Everyone I spoke to for this story agreed that American culture promotes happiness as a goal and a virtue and a right.
“That’s a very American idea, that if you’re unhappy, you’re doing something wrong,” Norem says. “It’s your own fault. I think there is guilt and anxiety about not being happy, and that’s part of what drives the market for self-help books.” (And now, apps.) Unhappiness is sometimes treated like a moral failing. The individualist American dream of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps can leave people wondering where they went wrong if they’re not happy and successful.
In a 1998 study, Americans thought happier people were more likely to get into heaven. Little wonder, then, that there’s been so much research focused on how to help people get happier.
Surveys conducted in the 1950s revealed that depression and other mental health problems were common in the U.S. population. In the wake of that, the 1960s saw more of a focus on happiness and how to “find yourself,” and a branch of psychology called “humanistic” started looking into questions of individual identity and meaning. This sped up in the ‘90s with the advent of positive psychology, which rather than studying how to treat mental illness, researches how to improve well-being generally. This captured the interest of economists and marketers who also began to study well-being, creating the conditions for the titular “happiness industry” Davies writes about in his book. And Happify may be research-based, but it’s still a business.
“Happiness is like sex in that it’s something that everybody wants, and it always sells,” McMahon says.
ut it’s not only that companies try to sell happiness in the form of trips to Disneyland or bottles of Coke that teach the world to smile. Happiness has also become tangled up with success—you should want to be happier not only for its own sake, but because it will make you more productive and better at life.
This perceived link between happiness and success exists for a reason. Studies have shown that feeling happier comes before people start to see positive outcomes, like being more sociable, altruistic, and creative. So it’s not that people were just happy because they were successful in various ways.
A prominent theory of happiness research suggests that experiencing positive emotions helps you build resources, like good relationships, good health, and cognitive coping skills that you can then draw on when things are not so sunny.
If I’m feeling good, I’m much more likely to go to the gym or agree to meet up with someone for drinks last minute—things that I know will make me feel better, but that I can’t always muster up the energy to do if I’m crabby and tired. My first instinct is always to shore myself up with rest, treats, and Netflix. It has taken me a long time to realize that sometimes the path to restoration is not doing nothing.
Meaning Is Healthier Than Happiness
“It’s absolutely true that you can learn tools and strategies that help you deal with hard times,” Norem says. Activities like Happify’s could help build those kind of skills. This is all of a piece with contemporary discussions about self-care—making time to take care of your physical and emotional health by exercising, getting enough sleep, and doing activities that you enjoy or that relax you, so you don’t burn out.
I think it’s great when people promote self-care, and it can help with a lot of things. But the language of “tools” and “strategies” and self-care places all the responsibility on the individual. It suggests that the answer to unhappiness is to turn ever-inward, that everything you need is within you, and conversely, you shouldn’t need anything from outside yourself.
This self-reliance goes along, Davies says, with general attitudes towards people’s personal economic outcomes. “We live in a society which pushes more risk and responsibility onto individuals,” Davies says. “They don’t feel that their job is as secure as they would have 40 or 50 years ago, and happiness is becoming something that people feel they need to work on almost as a source of security in its own right.”
So if you’re not happy, it’s your fault. And if you’re not successful, it’s your fault. And if you could just be happier, maybe you could be more successful.
“The really bullshit end of all this is the mystical self-help side of it, like The Secret and that sort of stuff,” Davies says. “There can be something slightly cruel about dangling the promise of ultimate success in front of someone if only they can learn how to be happy with their lives.”
“It’s a fine line between helping people and preying on their dissatisfaction,” McMahon says.
There’s also evidence that pursuing happiness too intensely can backfire. In one study, people who valued happiness more tended to have more depressive symptoms and were less satisfied with their lives when they were under low levels of stress. Another study found that the more people valued happiness, the lonelier they felt. If you believe your best life is one in which you’re always happy, always grateful, always satisfied, then when you end up sad or run-down despite your best efforts, it’s a double whammy of the feeling itself and being upset that you’re feeling it.
On the other hand, 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.
“Having this social value on happiness makes it so that people feel more comfortable using products like Happify and getting that benefit,” Parks says. “While maybe 10 years ago, there was stigma. Like ‘Ugh, self-help.’”
n early February, after the month I spent doing Happify activities every day, my score rose from 43 to 58, and the slanted mouth of my little emoticon turned into a smile. After that first month, I kept Happify on my phone while I continued to work on this article, and just did activities when I felt like it, or when I remembered to. Most weeks I did two or three activities; several weeks, I did zero. My highest score was 61, in mid-March, a week when I did two activities, and again at the start of May, during a week when I did zero. My most recent score was 58 again.
So, it works, at least by this measure. I did the activities, and my score went up. Parks told me that the average improvement is about 11 percent over eight weeks. At eight weeks, I rated a 60—a nearly 40 percent increase from my starting score. The competitive side of me is pleased, but I am not sure what that increase actually means. So far as I can tell, I don’t feel that different, day-to-day—and I definitely don’t feel 40 percent better. I still feel fine most of the time.
There are a number of ways you could interpret this. One, the scores are meaningless. Two, I felt subconscious pressure to increase my score and did so. Three, Happify totally works, but my happiness just increased slowly, and I’m having trouble remembering what I felt like before. This seems possible. Four, my increased happiness score is attributable to something outside of the app—warmer weather, or starting to exercise more, or discovering the Hamilton soundtrack. This seems possible, too. My happiest moments these past few months—taking the train from D.C. to New York with a beer and just the right playlist, seeing my sister perform onstage in her final high-school play, reading on warm porches and drinking on windy roofs—have nothing to do with an app.
But it could also be that whatever skills I’ve gained through Happify manifest in subtle and sneaky ways. I do think I might be a little better at realizing when I need to take a break, at forgiving myself for mistakes and letting things be finished, even if they’re not perfect. (Though judging by how long it took me to write this piece, I still have room to improve there.)
I think maybe the problem comes when you expect an epiphany, when you expect to win or to lose.
Happiness is certainly not winnable. Even Happify has realized that. “That’s something that’s going to change,” Leidner told me when we spoke, of the “Happiness: It’s winnable” slogan. What the company meant to convey, he says, is that people have some control over their happiness, “but it takes work. It’s not instant.” If you go to the site now, it says, “Overcome stress and negative thoughts. Build resilience.”
I’m still skeptical that Happify could help people do those things all on its own. I feel like at the end of the “journey” I’m supposed to come down on one side or another: either that self-discipline and habits are Enough, and you can hard-work yourself happy, or that happiness is too ineffable to be pinned to a cork board by science and we can only hope to grab a dance with it as it swirls and whirls by on the wind. But everything I’ve learned has only left me more ambivalent about how to make yourself happier, if you even can. Still, Happify might be a good supplement for therapy, or a way to build helpful habits, and it certainly seems like a good way to collect data about what does and doesn’t work in app form. I think maybe the problem comes when you expect an epiphany, when you expect to win or to lose. But that doesn’t mean you’re better off not even playing.
“Think about the amount of time Americans spend perfecting their golf swing,” McMahon says. “It seems to me that time spent crafting and cultivating a life is not time badly spent.”
In fifth grade I had this teacher, who was kind of scary, in a take-no-shit Professor McGonagall sort of way. She would put notes on the projector for the students to copy down, and woe be unto you if you got distracted, or were chatting, and missed something. Too bad, she was moving on. But if she noticed you frantically scribbling to keep up, hard at work but just a little too slow, she would pause. “You’re trying,” she would say. “And we always wait for tryers.”
There’s no guarantee a quest for happiness will be fruitful. It’s not something we’re owed just for being born. But it’s probably better to struggle than to give up. Maybe the lives we want will always be a little out of reach. But maybe they wait for tryers.