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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.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Amy – great talking to you moments ago, and while I’m still climbing up the learning curve (and will, forever… as I’m a lifelong learner) on habit creation and feedback loops, I’ve learned and applied more of these kinds systems in the last year (both to personal and professional benefit), than I can count.

    Finding ways to create positive feedback loops is one of my main drivers these days… and we can certainly use a LOT more of this out in the world, eh? Collaborative, positive engagement loops.

    It’s amazing to me how simple changing habits can be (not always, and not one way for everyone) – it’s been an eye-opening year or two on that front.

    Thanks again for your time today, looking forward to circling back again soon – and continue to help advance the cause from multiple angles! Collaboration FTW! 🙂


    September 17, 2012
    • Collaboration FTW indeed – we are comrades in arms on an exciting new frontier.

      September 28, 2012
  2. Hey Amy Jo Kim,

    Thanks very much for this good post. I knew your blog was a good news!

    Especially, I found the point 2 very relevant. I think one of the trick to avoid social comparison and still keep the fun spirit of competition is to introduce a part of chance in the ranking.
    I found that in Karl Kapp’s book on education:
    “Gaming uncertainty appeared to subvert the conventional learning discourse and the traditional concepts of classroom fairness (always earning points for correct answers), and the sting of failure was mitigated by the chance to win the game on the next roll of dice. Failure was attributed to bad luck and big losses the result of chance.” That way, in the experiment, students were kept motivated.

    I look forward to read your writings on brain plasticity, it’s very interesting and I really know nothing about this topic !

    September 18, 2012
    • thanks for sharing your thoughts! Uncertainty (e.g. variable reinforcement schedules) can be very useful, as in the example you discussed — but it also undercuts the skill-based aspects of a progression system. In short – it’s useful to experiment with, but tricky to get right.

      Brain plasticity is a fascinating and dynamic area – new discoveries are happening all the time, it’s hard to keep up! I’ll try to summarize the gist of what I’ve learned over the past few years in an upcoming blog post. Keep reading and commenting, I love the dialogue.

      September 28, 2012
  3. Love your post, especially #2. Social comparison has never been easier. You need to recognize the monster before you can beat it!

    September 18, 2012
    • Right on! I’ve learned that lesson many times over in the past few years. It takes discipline — but if I actively avoid social comparison, and instead practice gratitude, appreciation and empathy, I’m MUCH MUCH happier.

      September 28, 2012
  4. indigokittyknits #

    #2 is a great point – so easy to get caught up in comparing ourselves with others in any area you can think of, and, of course, there is always someone with whom to compare yourself unfavorably. Much better to look at how far you’ve come in some area, or just accept things as they are, while looking for the positive.

    September 19, 2012
    • Exactly! This lesson has really hit home for me this past year. I’ve always felt this intuitivey – but reading up on the science of social comparison was incredibly eye-opening. And once you realize the connection between unhappiness and social comparison, you start seeing it EVERYWHERE. It explains a lot.

      September 28, 2012
  5. Hiya Amy, I am taking Prof. Werbach’s Gamification course on Coursera. This week we watched your interview and I ended up here. 🙂
    I agree with your 3 points very much from personal experience and will keep them in mind when doing gamification. Hope to see an article on Point 3 soon!

    September 19, 2012
    • thanks for your note, much appreciated. I am working on collecting my thoughts and diving deeper — stay tuned 🙂

      September 28, 2012
  6. That’s what I though about the pets game from Tagged. I bought one pet and almost immediatly someone else bought it from me raising that pet value. I re-bought the pet (at a higher price) and again someone else take it from me leaving me with no pet at all, and so on and so on, so I could never have a pet because there were always someone richer than me who takes my pet away, so it was meaningless for me to play the pet game and I stopped playing it. If I wanted to play the pets game was for having pets, am I right?

    October 5, 2012
  7. I was talking about this: “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.”

    October 5, 2012

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. How Social Comparison Leads to Unhappiness | Amy Jo Kim
  2. Designing Sustained Engagement: 3 Questions to get you started | Amy Jo Kim

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