How happy are you? Happify wants to train your brain for emotional fitness

Happy face

Over the past couple of years, a smattering of studies have suggested that technology is taking its toll on our emotional wellbeing. But a new startup wants to use the web to commercialize the lessons of “positive psychology” and help people hone their happiness skills.

Founded two years ago by mobile and casual gaming entrepreneurs, New York-based Happify has been building and testing its emotional brain training tools with users in private beta for the past nine months. On Tuesday, the company announced that the site is now open to users far and wide.

Positive psychology is a relatively new field but has steadily gained attention from the popular press and inside academia. Promoted by former American Psychological Association president and University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman (you may have seen his popular TED Talk here), it studies positive human functioning (unlike most of psychology) and aims to help people improve resilience, compassion, confidence and other qualities associated with happiness.

Blending science and consumer web experience

But Happify co-founder Ofer Leidner said the lessons and findings from the field aren’t making their way to the masses fast enough.

“Our product tries to take the enormous amount of advancement that has been happening in the last decade in understanding the root causes of happiness and [combine] it with our expertise in consumer engagement, gaming and entertainment to create an experience that helps drive people toward achieving these goals of well-being and happiness,” he said.

Much like startup Lumosity uses online and mobile games and exercises to help people build their cognitive skills, Leidner said Happify provides a structured online program for improving what researchers say are five key happiness skills: savoring, thanking, aspiring, giving and empathizing.

When users come to the site, it asks them a series of questions to understand the major life events they might be facing and to gauge their baseline happiness level (using a modified assessment developed by psychologists). Then it prescribes a “track” of lessons and activities meant to match their emotional needs.

Games prime your brain for a positive outlook

Within each track, users are prompted to complete various challenges and games, each supported by the findings of happiness science. For example, one activity prompts users to micro-blog about positive daily events and experiences, because research has shown that recording positive moments boosts happiness. Another game asks users to click on words like “hope,” “give” and “thank” as they flash in front of images of rising hot air balloons, because psychologists suggest that priming the brain with positive words can lead to a more positive outlook.

Happify

During its nine-month beta test, Leidner said 100,000 people used the site, with seemingly positive results: after two months of using the site, 86 percent of users improved their happiness scores. He also said the average user spent 20 minutes on the site each session and visited the site two to three times a week.

The startup, which is backed by investors including Founders Collective, offers a freemium service: anyone can access a certain amount of content for free and then must pay $9.95 a month $71 a year or $95 for two years to subscribe to additional content. That model seems to be working for Lumosity, which said it earned $24 million in revenue last year. But I’m curious to see whether consumers have an equally strong appetite for an emotional brain training program based on such a new science (although positive psychology programs are in use by the US Army).

Leidner declined to share how many of the beta users have opted for the subscription services but he said that half of them chose the annual plan, which seems to indicate satisfaction with the site.

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