Happy Habits: Engagement Design meets Positive Psychology

Recently, I’ve been immersed in a project that’s translating the science of happiness into a compelling, habit-forming digital service. I’ve been digging into the scientific literature on positive psychology and neuroscience correlates, and learning about the activities the reliably make people happier – and unhappier. It’s been illuminating – and tremendously helpful in my personal life. I’d like to share 3 key things I’ve learned from this journey.

1) Investing in Meaningful Relationships makes people happier

There are a variety of regular practices –  including gratitude, kindness, mindfulness, and empathy – that have been shown to improve happiness in clinical trials. However, the most robust and widely-cited finding is the impact of relationships on happiness. In a nutshell, people who cultivate meaningful relationships report higher levels of happiness. Thus, one of the most powerful happiness-boosting actions you can take is to put time into relationships that matter. So now, whenever I’m meeting friends or colleagues for lunch, mentoring up-and-coming designers, following up with part clients, or sitting with my kids,  hearing about their day, in the back of my mind I know that I’m practicing a “happiness habit” by spending quality time with people I care about.

2) Social Comparison makes people unhappier

In the age of Gamification Everywhere, social comparison (via leaderboards and messaging) has become a default technique for motivating and engaging people. But happiness science reveals that judging yourself in relation to others is a mental habit that leads to envy, guilt, regret, and defensiveness. After I reviewed the (rather extensive) literature on this topic, I became aware of this pattern of thought in myself, my friends, my colleagues – and the strength of the correlation hit me like a ton of bricks. Once you start comparing yourself to others, you’ve jumped onto a treadmill that never stops – there is ALWAYS someone else who is smarter/better/stronger/richer/more beautiful/more popular than you are.

For designers, the punchline is to rethink your use of social comparison as a motivator. Do you REALLY need  that leaderboard on your website? If your goal is to deliver happiness to your customers, that might not get you where you want to go.

3) Happiness is a Habit –  you CAN change the way you think and perceive the world

Since my academic background and ongoing interests include Psych and Neuroscience, I’m familiar with the research on brain plasticity – which boils down to You Are What You Think.  Brains turn out to be highly programmable – within certain limits, you can literally rewire your brain and stimulate growth and change through specific mental activities.

There are a collection of well-researched techniques or “interventions” for developing a positive life outlook and generating feelings of happiness and well-being. When people do these regularly, their outlook and mood improves. Creating an engaging, compelling digital service to deliver these interventions is hard – and we’re just starting to understand what Happy Habits look like in action. This is a topic I’m PASSIONATE about – I’ll share more detail in a coming blog post on the topic.

What do you think? Do these findings ring true for you? Have you discuvered tricks & techniques in your life & work that promote happiness? I’d love to hear your thoughts.