Technologies of the Self

[This is a piece I wrote for the latest issue of Psychologies magazine, about the self-help industry's discovery of smartphone apps]
The rise of smart-phones is changing how humans interact, shop, travel, read, and now, they’re even changing how humans feel. Jules Evans plugged in and went on a month-long search for appiness.

If someone had told you ten years ago that your phone would monitor your moods, your social activities, your diet, your menstrual cycle, your sleep patterns, even your voice patterns, and then suggest activities or therapies to lift your mood and improve your well-being, would you have believed them? Thanks to the rapid rise of smart phones, your phone could, to all intents and purposes, became your pocket therapist.

“We’re just beginning to realize how much smartphones can do,” says Ran Zilca, CEO of Signal Patterns – who has developed apps for leading self-help experts such as Deepak Chopra and Sonja Lyubomirsky.

“The difference between a self-help app and a self-help book is that an app is interactive”, says Zilca. “You don’t just read about keeping a gratitude journal - there’s one in the app that you can fill in. An app can collect information from you, monitor your progress, and suggest different therapies.”

Deepak Chopra, who launched an app called Stress Free in 2009, says: “Mobile apps are especially interesting because they accompany the person wherever they go, and can truly help one transform their life and find more meaning and completeness."

So how can apps help us? One obvious way is by helping us monitor our moods throughout the day. Margaret Morris, a clinical psychologist at Intel, designed an app called Mobile Therapy, which pops up a ‘mood map’ throughout the day asking users how they feel, and suggests ways of relaxing or seeing a situation differently if the user is stressed or angry.

Morris says: “Phone apps are a great way to collect data, mapping your moods with things like your diet, your exercise regime, your social network, and seeing where the trouble spots are.”

Ran Zilca agrees: “These devices continually collect information about users, so they can suggest the best therapies and interventions. Your phone could realize you haven’t been out of the house for a few days, or it could know that your voice sounded a bit blue in your last phone call, so it could pop up with a suggested activity to improve your mood.”
Apps can also provide therapists with more information about how their clients are feeling. Some therapists are already building tailored apps for particular clients, which are designed around an individual’s habitual thoughts and behaviour.

Apps are an easy way for psychology research departments to collect data too. In fact, the London School of Economics recently introduced an app called Mappiness, which tracks how happy people feel in different neighbourhoods in the UK, and sends the data back to the LSE for analysis. You can imagine the government using the technology to build a happiness supercomputer: ‘Quick, depression levels are rising in Liverpool...Send Boris Johnson!’

My Pursuit of Appiness

I decided to try out some wellbeing apps for myself. I downloaded five apps and tried them out for a month, to see if they improved my mood. My favourite was Sonja Lyubormirsky’s Live Happy, an app based on her best-selling book, The How of Happiness.

I liked the way Live Happy combined many different self-help techniques, like the gratitude journal or a happiness photo album, in one easily-accessible place. Keeping track of how many ‘random acts of kindness’ I had done each week actually encouraged me to do more. But the app’s mood questionnaire is pretty simplistic. It asked me how happy I was, between 1 and 7. I replied 4. It came back with the insight: ‘You are moderately happy.’ Tell me something I don’t know.

Deepak Chopra’s Stress Free had similar features - it also has a gratitude journal, for example - but includes more New Age features such as relaxation music and guided meditations. I found it overly prescriptive - one feature is called ‘Is it my ego?’, which analyses whether one of your life goals is ego-based, according to five simple questions. After these five questions, it tells you whether your goal is ego-based, and therefore unworthy of you, or not. It seems pretty presumptuous for a computer programme to make such grand spiritual pronouncements based on five questions.
In general, I found apps a great way to access information - videos, podcasts, ideas, therapies. That’s one of the good things about apps. “They bring therapy to the millions of people who either don’t have access to it or who might feel stigmatized about getting it”, says Margaret Morris.

The downside of that wider accessibility is that you can’t be sure your if app is designed by experts or charlatans. “There are some pretty flaky apps out there”, admits Morris. I also felt uncomfortable entering private information about my moods and goals onto a machine that I leave lying around, that others can quite easily access, and that I might easily lose. I’d suggest app designers introduce password protection for wellbeing apps.

It seems to me that apps can and will play a bigger role in therapy, and that the more tailored and personalized they can be, the more effective they will be. But I don’t think machines can ever replace the therapy of human contact.
Roberta Galluccio Richardson, a clinical psychologist working in London, says: “A machine can’t feel sympathy or empathy, or build up a rapport with someone, which can be a strong motivating factor to work harder at the therapy.” New technology can help us in our quest for happiness and fulfillment, but ultimately whether we stick to our goals is still down to us.

Just as a bonus for blog readers, here is some more of the interview I did with Ran Zilca, the CEO of Signal Patterns, which developed the apps for Deepak Chopra, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Anthony Robbins and others. Ran has some interesting things to say, not just for psychology, but also for the publishing industry. Follow his blog, by the way - he's set off on a motorbike tour of the States.

JE: So tell me a bit about Signal Patterns.

RZ: Signal Patterns has been around for around four years. It was founded on the notion of marrying technology and psychology. Before I set the firm up, I was working at IBM, in its marketing department, building psychometric tests.
I realized there's a huge gap in terms of using technology for psychology assessments. Psychology as a research field is very technologically illiterate. So I started by making online assessment tools, and then moved on to designing mobile phone interventions.

JE: So you've worked with many famous self-help writers to change their books into apps. For example, you worked with Sonja Lyubomirsky to change her best-seller, The How of Happiness, into an app called Live Happy. What can an app do that a book can't?

RZ: The bigger value comes from allowing users to actively do something to change. Using an app is very different from reading a book. An app has the potential of intervening in real-time. A book is more linear.
For example, let's take someone who feels they're a negative person, and who wants to develop a more positive view. They could read a book, or go see a coach, and they might feel better when they're in a session or when they're reading the book. But then they have to leave the session or close the book, and take what they learn out into the world. With an app, they always have their phone with them. They can turn the app on, go through a sequence of activities. It's almost like a therapist in your pocket.

And an iPhone is an open environment. You can choose to connect a wellbeing app to your contacts list, to your social network, to your email, to your location. Your phone knows a lot about you. Phone apps are great ways of mapping your mood, and seeing how your mood connects to your location, activities, work, diet and social network. So your phone could know that you haven't left home for a week, and haven't spoken to your friends in a while. It could know that whenever you go to a particular location (like your parents' home), your mood deteriorates. And all this can be done in a non-intrusive way.

JE: It sounds like apps are really going to transform the self-help publishing industry, and perhaps the wider book industry as well. Are publishers working on pushing the boundaries of digital publishing?

RZ: I think publishers are still trying to get their heads round the internet and what that is doing to their industry. They're still in shock. And publishers are not traditionally the most tech-savvy people. So no, I don't get the sense the publishing industry has totally taken on board everything that apps can do.

JE: So in some ways, we're still learning how to use new technology like apps and iPads for publishing?

RZ: At the moment, the potential of the technology outstrips the imagination of the people designing for it.

[By the by, I see that David Eagleman, the neuroscientist and tech visionary, has published his new book as an iPad app - he thinks they're the future of books. I agree!]