January 15, 2012

How Apps Make You Happy

Brain scientists are on a crusade to promote a crucial discovery: that your brain rewires itself throughout life and is characterized by what they call ‘plasticity’. Closely linked to this idea, is the notion that how you learn and develop is influenced as much by social and emotional factors, as it is facts, figures and analysis.

Pioneering educators like Sir Ken Robinson have for a long time championed putting this thinking at the heart of our educational systems. His books describe the different preferences people have for learning.

Now heaven help the teacher or parent who has to deal with a primarily kinaesthetic learner, that is someone who learns best through physical means: touch and bodily expression. Yes, that will be the kid who wriggles constantly, can’t sit still for more than ten minutes and is at their most joyous dancing or kicking a football…

goldie hawn

In the USA, Goldie Hawn has set up her Hawn Foundation to encourage further research into brain science and educating children. She has set up the Mind UP programme, which includes taking frequent ‘Brain Breaks’, and performing ‘Random Acts of Kindness’ which activate mirror neurons in the brain: that is, you are kind to me and my reaction of pleasure returns the feeling to you.

One of the foundation’s aims is to educate children about the positive use of technology, so that they know when it is helpful to them and may be improving, say, their skills in perception – and when it is detrimental, and may be preventing them using their brains in a more creative and imaginative fashion.

Personal Development and Technology

But of course, adults too can use technology for personal development. One of the reasons Apple is one of the world’s most successful businesses, it is often said, is because its products enable its customers to feel and act smart and creative.

Thinking about this, a group of us got together to consider whether we could develop some mobile phone apps to help people manage their moods better. Our group included app and digital developers and me, as psychologist. Initially, we thought we might create an app for people experiencing panic attacks – but then we realized that from mums to managers, there are people who could do with a mobile trigger to help them calm down. Whether in the supermarket car park with a screaming toddler… or in the departure lounge at JFK … we could offer portable serenity.

You probably know an app is software application developed for mobile use, and some like Twitter are gigantic with millions of regular users, and some like ours and small but nifty. A first question to ask about creating any app is : where and why will people find this useful?

What excited me about our project was that apps allow you to use what you see, hear and touch when you interact with them – so you can cater for all sorts of communication and learning preferences.

In our Stay: Calm app for instance, you get to imagine the source of your stress on a balloon, which you can push off the screen, and to view your pulse rate in a pool, which gradually slows down. You can see and hear a tensing and relaxing exercise to perform with you hand.

So you get to use your body as well as your eyes and ears in calming activity – and action, as well as focussing your attention.

Though our first app was small, we were also able to include two other key ideas about mood management that are provenly effective.

The first is that when stressed, anxious or panicky, it is most useful to do something that makes us feel more in control. So taking the idea from cognitive-behavioural therapy, we created a score bar, where our users can monitor their level of stress and use the app repeatedly until they bring the score down.

balloon

And the second is that we manage our moods effectively by restoring a sense of perspective. In diverting tension consciously to just one part of our body, our users can understand how they can create and release tension themselves. Pushing the drifting balloon containing their stress trigger off the screen, teaches them to be film directors of their own lives, reducing their anxiety bugbears to something small and insignificant in a wide vista, rather than an irritant in close-up.

Whether you own a smart phone or not, you and people you help develop can take the app approach to happiness. What can you see, listen to, move or touch that could improve your mood? Can you immerse yourself in several of these channels so that you lose your current preoccupation – or at least relegate it in significance?

Apologies for the cheese, but here’s to happiness through appiness then…

Details of the brain scientists crusading conference mentioned at the beginning are here

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Stress

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