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Happiness apps: The solution to my millennial malaise?

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Everyone who knows me knows that I am one cynical cookie. But recent events in my personal life have put a serious strain on my general well being, so I wanted to learn how to take back control when things overwhelmed me. As any true millennial would do, I asked myself: can my smartphone help me? 

It all began last year, on a chilly February morning. I went to visit a friend in the Netherlands on her last night in town and found myself alone in her former kitchen the next day. While she was already on a flight back to Italy, I was sharing a cup of tea with her roommate. The awkwardness was as thick as the fog outside, so I casually asked Pascal what he was doing in his life. He told me that he was studying cognitive psychology, but more importantly, that he had a very lofty project in the works. It’s an idea that he has been working towards for more than two years: transforming self-improvement into a video game. His project peaked my interest but I did have a train to catch, so I put this enticing conversation in my cool-people-I-met-once drawer and didn’t think about it much… until now.

Fast-forward one year and I am in quite a tough spot. Some recent events in my life have given me a tall glass of ‘you don’t have your stuff together after all’ juice, and I realised I needed to make some changes. Out of sheer serendipity, Pascal’s name popped up again in a random conversation with my old friend, and I decide to write him to get some tips.

For his part, Pascal has not only talked the talk, but he is setting out on quite a striking, yet seemingly uphill walk. He tells me of how he has just launched his first video game prototype to better exemplify what his project is all about. He also suggested two other apps that are doing something similar and my millennial antennas start beeping.

Like most people I know, I am struggling to find happiness and fulfilment in my adult life. My phone is probably the most essential tool in helping me to navigate this labyrinth of responsibilities, appointments, ‘how do I’ questions and more. So could it also make me into a better, happier person? I was too curious not to try this out. Pascal suggested I try Happify and the Fabulous, two well-known happiness apps. I set on a journey for a month, checking back in every day and doing whatever task these apps gave me, journaling everything in the process.

My phone reminds me to get off my phone

There are thousands of different applications tackling self-improvement in many different ways: meditation, calorie counting, sleep tracking and much more. Although figures are hard to find, mobile self-help seems to have become a huge trend around the world. The ‘mindfulness’ phenomenon has had particular success, with apps making meditation easy and accessible. Some of its most famous applications, such as Headspace, have been downloaded up to 11 million times in 2017.

According to Ib Ravn, Coordinator of the Master's in Positive Psychology at Aarhus University, our generation is indeed more prone to anxiety when it comes to issues related to ‘adulting’: “The pace of life is quicker and the opportunities available to young people have increased. It could seem to be freedom, but sometimes this freedom turns into self-recrimination, blame and pressure to make the right choice.” I can certainly relate to this. Navigating through a world full of opportunities and yet void of direction has given me my fair share of stress.

I started with The Fabulous. The Fabulous was launched in 2015 with the idea that, through building good habits, we can become more productive. It’s a colourful and well-designed app that is very user-friendly. The habit-forming process starts small: at first, you are simply asked to drink a glass of water first thing in the morning for three consecutive days, then to eat a healthy breakfast for another three days (while keeping up your previous challenge), then to exercise for 10 to 15 minutes. After 19 days, you are supposed to have a morning, afternoon and evening ritual that encompass everything from meditation to productive work to healthy eating.

But from the get-go, something bugged me: was I really going to become more productive by using my smartphone? If I had to make a list of the things that make me anxious about life, my smartphone would probably at the top of the list. You can’t live with it, but you can’t live without it. The idea of all the hours I have wasted getting distracted while studying, or comparing my social media activity to some of my most magically tech-savvy friends makes my skin crawl a little.

Kevin Chu, digital marketer at The Fabulous, had some reassuring words for me: “A lot of the rising giant start-ups want to keep your eyes glued on the phone. But if you notice, when we [The Fabulous] are asking you to do something, we ask you to get off the phone.” He explained to me that, besides taking small steps, there is also the notion of changing your environment: “These habits don’t interrupt your actual routine.” It’s all a matter of integration.

I have to say that overall I quite enjoyed using the app. If there is one thing I need more of in my life to master the art of adulting, it’s structure. The Fabulous provided that. A few weeks ago I woke up after a rough night out. It wasn’t the worst hangover of all time, but my head hurt and I felt exhausted, disgusting and I was in a pretty terrible mood. While the items on my to-do list were growing by the second, I was ready to give myself a break and stay in bed wallowing all day. I picked up my phone and started scrolling through some Instagram stories.

The Fabulous notification popped up, reminding me to drink water, exercise for 10 minutes and eat a healthy breakfast. Ugh. I was at a crossroad: to laze or not to laze? To walk in the park or stay in bed where I’m warm and protected from the harshness of the outside world? I ended up going outside, walking, had a healthy breakfast and – to my own surprise – even managed to work all afternoon. If that’s not maturity, I don’t know what is. 

Still, some things just didn’t work out with my lifestyle. There was a lack of vegetarian options in the daily recipes suggested by The Fabulous. I was meant to call my parents every day. You know you are trying too hard when your own mom ghosts you and you have to stack up on kilos of tofu to replace all that grilled chicken you were supposed to have. Kevin says the team is working on customising the app even more, and admits that: “There isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ for habit building.” You don’t say.

One happiness to go, please!

Then there is Happify. At first, the app asks you to assess your happiness level based on a set of questions that touch on your social life, your health and the way in which you express emotions. Then, the app proposes a track. I chose to “conquer negative thoughts”. What comes after is a bunch of tasks that should eventually allow you to develop five essential skills: savour, thank, aspire, give and empathise – what Happify calls “S.T.A.G.E.”. I was ready to train myself in being happier.

As the weeks went by, I intuitively understood how some of the proposed tasks could ‘happify’ me, like asking me to send a compliment to someone who matters, or asking me: “If you could experience any emotion, what would it be?” The app would then challenge me to put myself in that mind-set. That was quite the revelation: wait, I can feel what I wish to feel? It is almost as if I was somewhat in control of my own emotions! Still, some of the games seemed a little gimmicky and even though the Happify website boasts a remarkable list of contributors and scientific studies behind its claims, I wasn’t sure just how effective these games were.

Professor Ravn’s voice was stuck in my mind. He didn’t really appease my doubts when it came to the Happify games: “Well if I get better at this little conceptual thing rather than that little conceptual thing, will that actually improve my life as a whole?” My thoughts exactly.

It became clear to me that I wasn’t sold on the app, quite literally. Several features remain reserved to the premium version, which ranges between 2.6 and 13 USD per month depending on the duration of your subscription plan. Although I appreciated how it helped me put some more critical thinking and distance between my negative thoughts and myself, it’s just a little… much. I quickly realised that these apps could have a hard time keeping their users engaged over a longer time period. It’s kind of like buying a shiny new toy as a child and then getting bored of using it after three days. These apps are as easy to get in to, as they are to get bored of. So how do I stay motivated in the long run?

Grow Playground and happy gaming

Pascal had the answer. Since our first conversation, he has started a Master’s degree at the Centre des Recherches Interdiciplinaires in Paris where, with a team of six people, he is finally developing his idea into a real-life video game called Grow Playground. As a former professional World of Warcraft and League of Legends player, Pascal knows exactly how motivating these games can be.

Inspired by similar projects and elements of cognitive and positive psychology, Grow Playground combines a role-play game framework with knowledge journeys and habit building. “After I stopped playing World of Warcraft, I was like: ‘Ok did I just waste the last five years of my life, or did I get something useful out of this?’ I asked myself whether it would be possible to create something that people can directly apply to their lives,” Pascal explains.

With Grow Playground, Pascal is hoping to get people who play video games to make more connections within their town or city with a sense of purpose. The team has already launched a very basic prototype earlier this year, but the goal is to develop a version of the game that can be optimised by users in an open-source, Wikipedia-style way.

I’m not a gamer and don’t necessarily adhere to what Pascal calls “value system”, which is inherent in most role-playing games and pushes you to be the best at something. Either way, I’ll give it a shot just as I did with Happify and The Fabulous. Still, one thing is clear: Grow Playground has the potential to reach people who would otherwise never even think of self-betterment. And, after all, it was Pascal’s motivation in real life – in the kitchen of my friend’s flat – that inspired me to ‘happify’ myself in the first place.

“What happens to melancholy?”

I always thought I knew two things in life: first, that happiness doesn’t come naturally for me, and second that most self-help tools had nothing to teach me. Prof Ravn reconciled both of my beliefs. He debunks the myth that positive psychology only focuses on the notion of “smile to the world and the world will smile to you”, but he also questions people who dwell in negativity. “What happens to melancholy, is that just to be banished? I don't really know what to say to other than: are you so sure you want to be in that frame of mind or have you just reconciled yourself to being that way?”

So maybe I have been too lazy. Maybe happiness, productivity and feeling like you are on top of every situation, like most things, takes hard work. Maybe I should push myself more to change my mindset and see things in a more healthy, positive and well-rounded way. I think that the answer for me lies in combining the tools offered by technology with some good, old-fashioned advice for motivating people I encounter in my non-digital life.

For example, Professor Ravn has a different take on how to find gratification: “I actually think that too much of positive psychology is concerned with helping people improve their own lives. Finding a meaning that transcends your ego and goes beyond your particular needs will help you to fulfilment in a way that's quite different from these fairly egocentric techniques that are quite prevalent in positive psychology”.

But yes, technology is not the boogieman and my smartphone has - and will be - instrumental to this part of my life. In fact, I’ll probably keep using The Fabulous to ease the pains of adulthood – although maybe less religiously. As someone who is chaotic in nature and who feeds off randomness, it is quite a leap to track my habits daily. I’ll give it to them though: bringing structure into my life made me more efficient, and definitely helped my hangover days.