Happify Sells Social Networking Science, for Now

With tech entrepreneurs trying to disrupt entrenched problems in every field, from dating to transit and education, perhaps it’s no surprise to see them taking on one of the most vexing problems of all: human happiness.

Happify, founded two years ago by a group of veteran tech entrepreneurs, has created a new website that claims to make its users happier through a series of freemium games with social networking features. Activities include clicking on balloons with positive words on them and writing down encouraging recent events. Happify says it works closely with scientific advisers, and several psychology researchers who looked at the site at my request say it appears to be oriented around sound principles from positive psychology, a relatively new subfield based on bolstering positive thought patterns.

But there’s clear tension between the company’s desire for scientific credibility and its push for user sharing, microblogging, and networking. Happify encourages its users to be as public as possible. “Scientific research shows that social support and positive feedback are key to staying motivated on your happiness journey,” the website reads. “If you’d like to interact more with other Happify members, you can update your privacy settings on the Settings page at any time!”

“That is a stretch—quite a bit of one, actually,” says Maria Konnikova, a Columbia University psychology researcher who has examined Facebook’s impact on user happiness. “There’s conflicting work on the effects of social networking sites on happiness. While some studies do show a positive effect, many show the opposite to be the case.”

Happify also hasn’t undergone the kind of rigorous testing needed to support its prominently displayed claim that “86% of members get happier in two months.” Acacia Parks, a positive psychology researcher and one of the company’s advisers, allowed me to review an internal document evaluating early data about Happify, and its findings were much more cautious. According to the document, users reported growing happier over time, but it’s difficult to know what constitutes a “clinically significant” increase in Happify’s happiness scale, which the company says is adapted from established questionnaires used in clinical psychology. The evaluation included no control group, so it’s difficult to interpret the results.

There’s a controlled trial in the works, says Parks, with plans to submit the results for publication next year. For now, Happify is asking premium users to pay for a service that hasn’t been shown to be more effective than free alternatives. Happify co-founder and President Ofer Leidner says, “I think it should pointed out how unusual it is for a company to put its framework through scientific studies so early.”

The other big problem with Happify is that it doesn’t do enough to steer people in serious need of help to more developed resources. While Leidner says, “We’re not thinking about this as a service for depressed people,” the site doesn’t offer concrete alternatives, like crisis phone numbers or links, to users who bomb its “happiness test.” Happify recommends counseling as an option, then resumes promoting its own features, its disclaimer tucked into terms-and-conditions language.

“Even if the site’s key audience is healthy people who just want to be happier, the authors need to prepare for what happens when clinically depressed or anxious (or people with eating, substance abuse disorders, etc.) use the site,” Sonja Lyubomirsky, a happiness researcher at the University of California, Riverside, wrote in an e-mail. Lyubomirsky says Happify asked her to advise the company, but she declined because she’d recently given birth.

Happify’s long-term challenge is revenue. Leidner says it’s currently trying to make money by accumulating paid subscribers, though he wouldn’t share subscription figures. The company is also weighing other ways to raise revenue in the longer term, he says, including by targeting services to customers based on what they’ve revealed in its happiness exercises. A customer looking to change jobs could be offered employment listings or career coaching.

While it’s easy to envision the lines between research and profits starting to blur, there’s a certain genius to this. Someone who might not broadcast unhappiness with their work or home life on Facebook, where hundreds of friends could see, might do so on Happify. Leidner says the company has “no specific plans” on this front and that any new revenue model would have to pass “robust testing.”

Part of what makes Happify so fascinating is the intersection of a breakneck startup culture and the slower, incremental world of psychological research. It remains to be seen whether this culture clash will yield empirically validated methods to improve happiness—and what the company will do with some unusually enticing user data.

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