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The Definitive Guide to Hacking Happiness

... including 11 apps that can help get you there.

Anxiety and depression are on the rise: One study shows that anti-depressant use has risen over 400 percent in recent years. One in 10 Americans currently uses a psychotropic medication for anxiety, depression, or similar conditions. A recent study found that this rise in anxiety and depression is occurring in teenagers as well.

Research by Shelly Gable and Jonathan Haidt suggests that we actually have three times more positive experiences than negative. So why are our happiness levels not higher—and what can we do about it?

An entire field of research—positive psychology—has developed around this question. And scientists aren't the only ones asking this question; so is everyone else, which explains the recent surge of books on happiness (there are over 72,000 currently listed on Amazon); attendance at yoga class (over 20 million) and meditation seminars; and the growth of websites devoted to increasing happiness (like Fulfillment DailyHappier, and Happify).

Silicon Valley has joined the race and is using novel concepts from positive psychology to hack happiness. The last five years have seen the development of a multitude of apps and programs devoted to enhancing well-being by teaching a multitude of scientifically-validated happiness techniques: how to increase gratitudehow to breathe betterhow to destresshow to meditate and calm downhow to gain wisdom. What about diet and exercise, which we know impact our well-being? There are apps for that, too—even for sleep.

And it's a good thing: Whether you're on the bus, at work, at home or even (illegally) in the car, you're probably on your smartphone. A UK study shows that we sometimes spend more time on tech than we do asleep! Since everyone is so focused on their mobile technology, trying to teach happiness there is probably not a bad idea.

In addition to conferences like Wisdom 2.0, contests to develop well-being apps are starting to emerge. Last year, our center, the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford, held a conference on Compassion and Technology that included a contest for the best app. This year, the Happiness App Challenge organized by two non-profits—the Art of Living Foundation and the International Association for Human Values—is offering cash prizes for the development of the best happiness-inducing apps. Archana Patchirajan, director of The Happiness App" challenge and a serial technology entrepreneur (founder of Hubbl, among other initiatives) shares that the "growing reach of smartphones is a unique platform to address the silent issue of stress in society. With smarter and thinner wearables and the skilled combination of hardware and tailored software, engineers can make a powerful difference in society's happiness levels." Not surprisingly, judges of the competition will be happiness exerts like Harvard scholar Matthew Killingsworth and creativity expert Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the University of Pennsylvania's Imagination Institute. (For more on the contest, or to submit an app, visit the Happiness Apps Challenge.)

So the question is: Does technology really help us connect? Is it worth all the time we spend on it? In some cases, no: One study showed that it actually makes us more lonely. By other measures, the research says yes. So what determines whether technology makes our day or gets us down? It depends on your tech-usage style.

Here are the dos and don'ts of happier tech-happy people:

1. Send Affectionate Notes, Often.

research study on couples and texting showed that texting to express affection is associated with higher connection between partners.

2. Contribute Often.

A Facebook study showed that, when we are actively sharing and posting, then Facebook makes us happier, presumably because we are reaching out to others and, in turn, receiving feedback from them, creating a two-way network of social connection.

3. Inspire and Uplift Others.

Why are Facebook pages like PurposeFairyUpWorthy, and FinerMinds so popular? Because they aim to uplift, inspire, and brighten people's days. We can choose someone who brings more sunshine into people's lives. Research shows that altruism and helping others makes us happier, healthier, and can even lengthen our lives.

4. Reach Out (You May Just Save a Life).

Dan Caddy, a veteran responsible for the military-humor Facebook page "Awesome Sh*t My Drill Sargeant Says," received a message one day from a serviceman about his buddy, who was suicidal and had locked himself up in by himself with a gun—and his cellphone was off so no one could locate him. Caddy posted a notice that said that all jokes were off and that help was needed. Hundreds of comments flew in through the night, and people starting getting in their cars and driving in the direction of the suicidal soldier. By 4:00 am, after hundreds of people had joined the effort, the soldier had been located and his life saved. Caddy has since started a nonprofit called Battle in Distress. (See our joint talk at Facebook Headquarters here.) You may think you're just sitting at home browsing pictures of friends' dinners, weddings, and kids, but you may also be the first to notice that something is wrong, that you can help a friend in some way, and that you can even save a life. A study shows that one out of every four people has no one to talk to. You never know who could use a kind gesture.

5. Connect in Meaningful Ways.

Together with Arturo Bejar and the Facebook Compassion Team, we are working on creating apps and improving opportunities for connection, empathy, and kindness through Facebook interactions. Countless acts of violence and bullying can happen on social media, for all to see, with real consequences that have even sadly led to teens taking their lives. However, we can reach out and do something to help them. Research on compassion shows that helping others and altruism is the best-kept secret to happiness and well-being. Facebook presents countless opportunities to check in with loved ones and friends and to be there for them if something seems off. Similarly, social media is a place where you can express need for support.

6. Close Your Computer, Set Down Your Phone, and Look Someone in the Eye.

Research by Paula Niedenthal shows that eye contact is the most essential and intimate form of connection. Social media is primarily verbal while the root of intimacy is not verbal but is transmitted through the most minute facial expressions (the tightening of our lips, the crows feet of smiling eyes, upturned eyebrows in sympathy or sorry) and posture. Mirror neurons in our brain are dedicated to reflecting the actions of others so that we can internally feel what is happening with them. This ability is the basis for compassion and is the reason we feel sorry when someone cries or back away when we sense someone's anger. How much of this can be transmitted through a text or even a staged selfie? None of it. Look up and meet someone's eyes instead of a screen.

7. Log Onto A Well-Being App.

  • Destressify teaches exercises to calm the mind, achieve emotional balance, relax, get energized, and find joy
  • Centered helps manage stress with a holistic wellness program of clinically validated mindful meditation sessions.
  • Happier—an on-the-go gratitude journal to record happy moments both big and small, which is a scientifically-proven way to feel more positive and optimistic.
  • Lift helps you put your goals into action.
  • Happify empowers you to live a happier, more fulfilling life through a set of personalized and research-based activities.
  • Day One helps you record life as you live it, from once-in-a-lifetime events to everyday moments.
  • Wisdom by Sri Sri delivers daily wisdom quotes to uplift you and keep you inspired.
  • Lumosity offers a training program to challenge your brain.
  • Calm helps you cultivate greater calm in your life.
  • Fulfillment Daily delivers inspiring and practical science-backed tips for a happier life straight to your phone.
  • tracks your physiological activity and teaches you to breathe your stress away.

Interested to learn more? Want to get in the game or already in it? Then check out the Happiness Apps Challenge, a contest for the most happiness-inducing apps!

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Emma is the founder of Fulfillment Daily, science-based news for a happier life.

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© 2014 Emma Seppala, Ph.D.

photo credit: Namita Azad