Digital happiness: the next Facebook?

Photo Christophe Deshayes & Jean-Baptiste Stuchlik / President & Director of R&D, Tech2Innovate / February 21st, 2013

Entrepreneurs, investors and gurus are on the lookout for the next Facebook, the next killer app that will draw in one billion users before anybody has even started to grasp its potential. It's difficult to foretell the name of the player who will hit the jackpot, but the playing field is almost certainly determined: the technologies of happiness and wellbeing.

For the first time since its inception in 1967, the Las Vegas Consumer Electronic Show, the largest exhibition of digital technologies in the world, has dedicated this year an entire section to digital wellbeing. This is the unmistakable sign that a new wave in the digital world is about to break into our lives: digital technology will help us take care of ourselves and of others. Nobody had predicted the rise of Web 2.0, the arrival of Facebook, Twitter or the incredible rebirth of Apple. Likewise, nobody was prepared for the rise of these “technologies of happiness” despite the fact that they may revolutionize our daily lives, with major economic and societal impacts.

Even though we can rightly question the ability of these gadgets to keep their promises, one thing is certain: the economic potential of this new sector is huge. In fact, all the ingredients of a strong and sustainable growth are combined: these technologies respond to identified expectations of consumers from different economic sectors, from publishing to fitness training. By going digital, they have given birth to a whole new range of services within a mass market.

Taking care of yourself and others with digital technologies
Is digital technology, the key to happiness? It might sound surprising and yet, if one examines closely the example of love – an unquestionable ingredient of happiness –online dating services that were once considered as scandalous have gone mainstream since several decades and are responsible for thousands of marriages and births. From teenagers to seniors, discovering or rediscovering love through digital technology has become so common that nobody is hiding it anymore. This tendency has grown to such an extent that over 30% of couples formed during 2011 in the European Union have met online (This figure even reaches 70% for same-sex couples). The social uses aren’t completely defined, as many new innovations are still being implemented based on geolocation, profile accuracy, the originality when establishing a relationship, coaching services…

Even more surprisingly, genuine management tools of couple and family life are now available. For example, some mobile applications (apps) offer to help develop the “emotional intelligence” within the couple. And after all, why not? To express regularly a compliment, even by SMS, can have true positive effects which usually trigger some kind of positive emotion: affection, complicity, love… Other apps help parents who want to change their education style to strengthen their authority or to use other techniques of conflict resolution in a context of difficult family relationships. Thanks to e-parenting, parenting is taught using new technologies: CD-ROM, smartphone and of course, self-help groups on the Internet.

Digital technology also allows sharing new experiences. Today, over four million young mothers have a blog in the United States, mainly to share tips and tricks, or their experience as parents. In the case of extended, distant or blended families, shared calendars simplify the organization of everyday family life while videoconferencing and blogging can help maintain family ties, share events and happy memories.

This idea of keeping happy events in a journal is included in the so-called e-gratitude applications that keep the track of all good moments in life by recording the action or sensation, place, date and most often, with a souvenir photo. Other applications offer sessions of guided meditation, relaxation therapy or positive visualization. These devices are based on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and positive psychology. Even if they are not fit to treat patients with acute depression, they have nevertheless demonstrated their effectiveness to prevent depressive relapse or mitigate certain mood disorders. According to the figures of the WHO, in 2020, depression will represent the second leading cause of global disability in the world, after cardiovascular disorders. One can easily imagine the importance of the issue at stake.

In the field of psychological well-being, digital technologies also offer effective therapeutic alternatives, as many studies have shown: overcome addictions, follow an online psychotherapy, relax (based on inspiring music and videos and also on guided breathing exercises), or improve temper by focusing attention on positive thoughts. The effect on the perceived quality of life is real, sustainable… and contagious.

Happiness is also about feeling good inside your body. As a result of the advances in medicine, our physical well-being depends increasingly on our lifestyle, including our physical activity and eating habits. The WHO estimates that with a healthy lifestyle, 75% of cardiovascular diseases and type II diabetes could be avoided, as well as 40% of cancers. And despite the fact that we all know about the good, we find it incredibly difficult to change our habits and keep our resolutions. Digital technologies, on the other hand, can be very effective in helping us to adopt and keep up with physical activities and healthy food habits.

A personal coach for everyone
In the field of monitoring physical activity, the recent years have seen the proliferation of inexpensive miniature wearable devices that measure our daily energy expenditure. These small items are often coupled with a heart rate monitor or a GPS. For joggers, calculating distance, heart rate, burned calories and keeping a track of their course become easy tasks that are increasingly integrated into applications – when the smartphone itself does not play the role of one of these devices.
With the possibility of following a training and activating necessary alerts and reminders, it becomes easier to practice with regularity. Even non-athletes can simply monitor their daily activities and check if the recommended 10,000 daily steps are achieved or not. The simple act of wearing these devices improves daily physical activity from 10 to 25% and up to 32% if we set a goal that is easy to record and share through the digital network.

More generally, the smartphone, with all its other features, can easily turn into a personal trainer for running, cycling, rowing, swimming, etc. Coaching audio systems, integrated in MP3 players or smartphone are also very successful. Intended for joggers, “smart players” automatically select the pieces of their playlist whose rhythm is synchronized to the wished speed. This reduces the sensation of effort and enhances performance. Launched by the British National Health Service the podcast audio program “From the couch to 5km” (Couch 2 5K) was a great success. Over nine weeks, it sets a safe plan to get back to sport activities and be able to run 5 km in 30 minutes without interruption. The sessions alternate music tracks at different speeds (warm-up, acceleration, recovery), with audio instructions, all in a progression suited to the physical condition of non-athletes. In less than 18 months Couch 2 5K has been downloaded by 10 million people and tens of thousands of them advise and help each other on the discussion forum associated with the program.

Another good practice of which we all know the virtues: eating healthy and moderately. Digital devices can help us change our behavior in the long-term. Given the seriousness of public health issues regarding obesity, this could be a clear benefit for individual and public health.

A first idea is to adapt the scientifically recognized nutritional principles to the habits of each individual and change them as little as possible, through advanced personalization algorithms. The principle is simple: the lower the effort, the more people are able to follow the diet over time. In terms of diet, only long-term eating habits provide real benefits. The LeDiet service is based on this principle and claims to have analyzed 5 million customer profiles in France and the USA.

Knowing that our eating patterns are automatic, or conditioned at 90%, various digital devices offer a control on our eating habits. Some applications for instance, take pictures of the foods that we are about to eat and share it on Facebook or on a dedicated website. The aim is to break automatic patterns by strengthening our motivation through the support or social pressure of our real or virtual friends. Digging even further into the logic of motivation, researchers at Yale have created StickK, a commitment shop which reinforces commitment and increase by 15-fold the odds of keeping our resolutions.

Finally, SMS services that send us instructions during mealtimes or suggest easy and healthy recipes are another effective lever, as corroborated by scientific studies. This use of the smartphone – the Swiss Army knife we always carry in our pockets – is an offshoot of a new discipline known as influence computing or captology (computer as persuasive technology) that is starting to be taught, especially at Stanford. Digital technologies, social sciences and neuroscience converge to highlight the cognitive-behavioral levers that give individuals the means to change: eat better, exercise more, think positively…

It is a societal transformation of first importance that opens the door to significant economic possibilities for both new products and services as for the emerging wellbeing industry. In addition, digital technologies accelerate the reorientation of the health system towards prevention. This is good news, especially considering the fact that health care costs due to chronic, lifestyle-related diseases may shoot up in a close future. As one can easily expect, health insurance – whether public or private – will be deeply transformed by the rapid emergence of these happiness technologies

However, by relying so heavily on smartphones to change our behaviors, will we become addicted or even enslaved to machines? Fortunately, this is absolutely not what happiness technologies are about. Far from subjugating us (advertising and media already do that extensively), they are here to help us take control of our own behavior. They open a new era in the emergence of personal development as a mass phenomenon. Whereas in modern societies, developing the body, love life, relationships, have become a crucial challenge, digital happiness technologies offer an easy and reliable way to wellbeing. More effective and stimulating, they could change the situation of millions of people. This new pursuit of happiness raises a number of sociological, public health but also economic issues. Digital technologies create solutions that are at the intersection of the individual and the social. It’s a safe bet to say that the next Facebook will emerge in the field of well-being technologies…

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