Over the past six months, I have been tracking the development of a new category in consumer technology devoted to the development and democratization of tools and practices that promote mental fitness. Looking at pioneering applications like Happify – which enables consumers to regulate and monitor their emotions and behavior — I took a first stab at branding the category: happytech. As I followed other companies entering the space, I realized that the brand failed to do justice to the movement; there were serious people at work here, and the smiley face that happiness studies continually conjur up — you see that silly face everywhere — detracts from the scientific rigor and philosophical discipline that informs the movement. I decided, recently, that a better brand is “positive technology,” for the science and philosophy owe a great deal to the positive psychology movement.
Now that the category is becoming more visible, it might be a good time to articulate the pillars upon which it stands. From where I sit — as both an observer and new participant in the movement (I have recently begun advising a number of organizations on potential applications for the new technologies) — there are three distinct yet related areas of tech development. By far the most disruptive is in education. Reason: positive psychology — which in fact seeks to develop and democratize the tools and practices of mental well-being — is not only challenging the psychotherapy market to shift its attention from mental illness to mental wellness. More radically, it is challenging the market to rethink the service delivery model. Rather than simply adding to the number of practitioners trained for 1:1 and group consultations, the positive psychology movement has generated a wide range of curricula for teaching the tools and practices of its trade. This makes sense, for one of the premises of the movement is that wellness, resilience, and other core life skills can be learned (nurture, not just nature). And if they can be learned, they are subject to the forces that are disrupting other parts of the education market.
The most striking illustration of this is a massive, open online course (MOCC) sponsored by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center (GGSC), which is expecting to attract as many as 100,000 students when the first class bell rings this Fall. Not only is edtech accelerating the dissemination of tools and practices of positive technology, it is also accelerating the creation of teachers. One of GGSC’s goals for the course is to train the next generation of trainers, and the MOOC has the potential to reach and teach many kinds of trainers from many walks of life around the world.
But technology also will provide ways to make the learning efficacious. This is where companies like Happify can be helpful. Positive technology apps pick up where quantified-self apps for exercise leave off. In fact, they may be the next wave of quantified-self apps. And just as edtech is accelerating learning for positive psychology, mobile tech is accelerating the distribution of apps designed to help consumers to modify their behavior. Prediction #1: expect a number of new positive tech apps to emerge in the next six months as Apple and Google roll out their new smart watches and other wearables (early signal: a recently announced app for Google Glass that reminds people to regularly express gratitude, a standard exercise in positive psychology curricula). Prediction #2: expect more sophisticated applications to emerge as sensor technology develops suffciently to monitor emotion and other proxies for well-being.
But in the aftermath of Facebook’s recent experiment with manipulating emotion, the positive psychology movement has an opportunity to take a philosophical stance on what it perhaps the most important technology pillar: the data that tells us whether the tools and practices are efficacious (i.e., effective). There’s a clear trend line that’s worth following: the marketplace for apps where consumers own the data, or at least have greater control of their data.
This too makes sense. Educational, social, and mobile technologies have all been driven by the market opportunities of democratization. Empowering the consumer is not just good. It’s also good business. In the positive technology world, this means that developers will need to think hard about data privacy not just because of the risks but because of the opportunities. Apps that help people visualize and understand the progress they are making with their mental well-being – just like the apps that are doing this today with exercise, a component of mental well-being – will only take off if the issues around privacy and ownership are addressed. With a positive positive psychology narrative – developing, democratizing, and, yes, defending the tools and practices of well-being – technologists have a way to navigate this new world. But it is in fact a new world, and it is not quite yet visible. Prediction #3: a new cadre of technology leaders will soon shine the light.
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