Happify
Podcast #110 — Aired November 14, 2016

There are endless apps to make your life easier, but how about happier? This week on BetterWorldians Radio, we’re talking with Dr. Acacia Parks, Chief Scientist at Happify, a digital destination for effective, evidence-based solutions for better emotional health and wellbeing in the 21st century. Dr. Parks will explain how Happify works to help users make positive changes for a happier life.

 

 

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Dr. Acacia Parks
Chief Scientist, Happify

Dr. Acacia Parks is the Chief Scientist at Happify, a digital destination for effective, evidence-based solutions for better emotional health and wellbeing in the 21st century. Dr. Parks is a professor at Hiram College and teaches classes on the science of happiness. Dr. Parks also conducts original research on positive interventions in everyday behavior—and their ability to transform lives. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, and is a Principal Fellow at the Center for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne.

Episode Transcript

Gregory Hansell
Hi. And welcome to Better Worldians Radio. Better Worldians Radio is a weekly broadcast whose mission is to uplift and inspire you to make the world a better place. I'm Greg Hansell, joined today by my co-host MarySue Hansell. Better Worldians Radio is brought to you by Better Worldians Foundation and is co-hosted by the family team that created the popular social game on Facebook called A Better World. It rewards players for doing good deeds while helping to raise money and awareness for charities. To date, over 40 million good deeds have been done in A Better World by more than 4 million people in over 100 countries. Today on Better Worldians Radio, we're talking with Dr. Acacia Parks, Chief Scientist at Happify, a digital destination for effective, evidence-based solutions for better emotional health and wellbeing in the 21st century. Dr. Parks is a professor at Hiram College and teaches classes on the science of happiness. Dr. Parks also conducts original research on positive interventions in everyday behaviorand their ability to transform lives. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, and is a Principal Fellow at the Center for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne.

MarySue Hansell
Hi Dr. Parks. This is MarySue Hansell. Thanks for joining us today on Better Worldians Radio.

Dr. Parks
Thanks for having me.

MarySue Hansell
Oh, we're very happy to hear about Happify. So tell us a bit. What is Happify? I'm sure a lot of our listeners may not know about it.

Dr. Parks
So Happify is an online platform that was designed by a multidisciplinary team of entrepreneurs, game designers, programmers, and then I was on that the research side of that to basically take what already existed in terms of the science of happiness and placing it where it can be reached by the general public and delivered to them in an engaging format so that people will not only be able to access it but also will stick with it. So it can be accessed on phones or on the web and we have a bunch of programs that we call tracks that last for four weeks that people can access and use these research-based techniques to improve their own well-being.

MarySue Hansell
So tell our listeners about these different tracks that Happify offers.

Dr. Parks
So we have tracks that we worked with leading experts to design. So in addition to...in the very beginning, I spent a lot of time vetting all of these different activities that came out of the research and putting them on the site but then we came to specific types of problems, we had experts who did nothing but think all day about that particular problem come in and help us work on these tracks. So, for example, we have some more general tracks that are just focused on things like conquering negative thoughts or coping with stress. So these are some of our very most popular tracks.

MarySue Hansell
I was going to say there, they're some of my favorite too. And beat the burn out is another good one.

Dr. Parks
Yea, I think we have quite a number of different tracks that are about handling normal stressors that people deal with on a day-to-day basis. But we also have some tracks that are designed specifically for certain problems. So we have one that was recently released for people living with diabetes and the idea is that by increasing their well-being and their sense of empowerment about their ability to manage their disease, they might be more likely to take all of the steps in their treatment plan to do that. That's actually something that we're studying in a research study right now. So we have that track designed by an expert on well-being and diabetes, Judy Moskowitz, at Northwestern University. So we do team up with these experts for very specific knowledge to come up with, for tracks to target specific topics, in addition to these more broad tracks that handle general resilience and well-being.

MarySue Hansell
Now how does a person who uses Happify decide what track they need? Is there a test or something like that that they take?

Dr. Parks
So when people register, we do have a track recommender survey that people can take and we offer recommendations from there. But people are also free to override that recommendation and just choose something that they think would be right for them. So they basically get suggested a few tracks based on what they say in the survey and they can choose from those few tracks or they can just go through the list and pick one that looks good.

MarySue Hansell
Neat. Can you talk about the five basic skills that separate happy people from everybody else?

Dr. Parks
Sure. So as we were putting this site together in the very beginning, we were trying to think of how we could group these many many activities in the research in a way that we could present to the public meaningfully, and we came up with this model that we call STAGE. It's just an acronym, STAGE, and it covers these five basic skills that we saw that these activities hit on. So S stands for Savour. So people who are high in well-being are able to savour things. That goes for everything between savouring a sensory experience, so sitting down with a meal and really appreciating every single aspect of it, noticing all of the different components, all the way up to savouring a victory, something good happens to you and you're able to actually appreciate that this victory happened and take time with your family and friends to enjoy it and make it last. So, on Happify we have a number of activities that are geared towards the whole range of things that can be savoured, such as the things that I described before. So you might have somebody sit down with something that they do on a daily basis and maybe rush through and spend time savouring that experience, where they might not normally notice that thing.

MarySue Hansell
Yea, I was going to say that's kind of like a mindful experience.

Dr. Parks
It is. Exactly. It does. It stems right out of that mindfulness research tradition of being able to be in the present moment. So that's Savour.

MarySue Hansell
I was going to say the next one is Thanks. That's important for everyone, especially with Thanksgiving around the corner.

Dr. Parks
Oh yes. This is one that I talk about quite a lot this time of year because Thanksgiving is when we really spend time thinking about gratitude. There is quite an impressive literature on gratitude that finds that it is highly beneficial both psychologically and physically, leading to things like better sleep quality. So gratitude activities are really essential for us to include and an example of a gratitude activity might be for me to identify somebody that has done something or several things that I am grateful for but who I maybe have only thanked informally, like "Oh! Thanks for doing that," but I haven't really expressed my gratitude and I might take the time to write a few paragraphs detailing the reasons that I am grateful, the specific things that they did that I am grateful for. And then if I'm feeling really ambitious, I might deliver that narrative that I wrote to the person to let them know why I'm grateful. So feeling gratitude is important. Expressing gratitude is even more powerful and we try and encourage both of those in these types of activities.

MarySue Hansell
Yes. We had Dr. Robert Evans on our Better Worldians show and he just talked about some of those similar things. It's wonderful and he told a lot of stories about people delivering messages and so I think that's a nice thing to do, if you have the courage to do it.

Dr. Parks
Yes. He is the father of this area of research. So if anybody knows, it's him. But yes, it's true. Being able to deliver, many people have taught this stuff, hundreds of people over the years. People are quite nervous about telling the other person about their gratitude but for the most part it can be a very powerful experience for people to, not only take the time to consider their gratitude, but to actually spend that time letting somebody else know.

MarySue Hansell
Then you have Aspire. Tell us about that one.

Dr. Parks
Yea. So Aspire was a category we developed because there is also a lot of evidence that optimism and looking forward, kind of thinking about the big picture and meaning, all play a really important role in well-being as well. So Aspire techniques are those that encourage people to engage in those processes, to think well why do I do this, you know what's the reason that I get up in the morning, what motivates me in my life, what feels meaningful to me and to try and find meaning in the things that they do on a day-to-day basis, so that they can spend more time doing the types of activities that they find meaningful. So, we spend a lot of time talking about this around work. So if a persons trying to get themselves engaged in work, trying to think what about this job is meaningful to me, what helps motivate me to do this job. But also in relationships. So we do a lot of meaning about what do I bring to my family, what are the ways that I contribute to the whole of my social group. And we have activities around both of those kinds of things.

MarySue Hansell
And here's an important one, the whole thing about Giving, especially with the holidays coming up and all year round we should do that. But tell us why.

Dr. Parks
So this is probably the most recent area of research that has surfaced but there's some very compelling evidence that giving to other people is very beneficial to us psychologically. So when we give to others, it's better for our well-being than when we give to ourselves, which is really cool and interesting. There is some research starting to teach people how to be more giving or how to do more kind acts. So one activity that we will often do is to have people plan five things in the day that they can do that are kind acts for another person. So all in one day - five kind acts. The research finds if you try and spread it out, it's not enough that you'll notice the difference. So they do it all in one day. Five kind acts. It can be to a stranger. It can be to somebody that they know. It can be planned or unplanned but as long as they do it in that one day that gives a well-being boost. Another cool thing that we have on Happify is something called a Kindness Chain. So in internet world, we have this ability to send a message to somebody else, an encouraging message, and then have them send more encouraging messages and eventually becomes this chain that can cross the country and you can see a map where it shows you all of the different people who have been impacted by your kindness chain. So that's another really cool one.

MarySue Hansell
And how do we work with the Empathize? How do we teach that?

Dr. Parks
Empathy. I think it's probably obvious to all us why empathy is important. If people are doing things in our lives that we don't understand, our natural reaction can be to become frustrated with them and that puts relationship strain on things. So Empathize activities are designed to help people spend more time trying to take the perspective of other people in their lives and so there's a lot of research about perspective-taking and how to do it and a lot of it has to do with just taking a moment to understand what it would be like in the other person's shoes. So an Empathize activity might have you think about a situation that happened recently where you felt annoyed with somebody else and to spend some time trying to figure out, from their perspective, what they thought they were doing so that you can understand it and maybe feel a little bit less upset or hurt or annoyed, once you can kind of figure out the details of maybe where they were coming from and then maybe it wasn't to hurt or upset you but for other reasons.

MarySue Hansell
Good idea.

Gregory Hansell
We'll talk more with Dr. Parks about Happify in just a moment. But right now I'd like to take a brief break and tell our listeners a bit about our game on Facebook called A Better World. A Better World encourages habits of goodness, positive mindsets and giving to social causes to make a positive difference in the world. Players do things like express gratitude, share acts of kindness, send get-well notes to real-world sick children and much more. Each month, we partner with a different charity and challenge our players to a certain number of good deeds within the game. When they do, we will release funds to our charity partner of the month. You can find out more at abetterworld.com. So now let's get back to our conversation with Dr. Acacia Parks, Chief Scientist at Happify. So Dr. Parks. Hi. This is Greg.

Dr. Parks
Hi.

Gregory Hansell
I know that you are Chief Scientist at Happify. What's that role like?

Dr. Parks
Well, in the beginning, it was really helping the team decide what belonged on Happify in the first place. So I spent a good amount of time really just advising on the contents of the site but now that the site is up and running and mainly, you know, it's bringing in users and development has slowed down, my role has shifted quite a bit. So that my role is more to generate new science, to study what we're doing, to assess how well it's working and for whom it's working and how we might be able to help it work better but also to conduct new research studies where we can extend our reach to new populations. So right now Happify is focused on consumers who show up to the site but what about certain chronic health conditions or more severe psychological problems. That has to happen in a controlled study context and that's what I'm working on right now, is these new exciting studies in new populations, trying to extend our knowledge of for whom Happify can be helpful.

Gregory Hansell
Interesting. So clearly Happify is really grounded in science. Can you tell our listeners just a bit about what the researchers found about our ability to improve our own happiness?

Dr. Parks
So the first, I think, the most striking and thoroughly replicated, piece of evidence is just that happiness can be lastingly increased at all. So there has now been over ten years of research found that there are certain concrete techniques you can have people do and if they do them they will not only feel immediately better but if you check with them three months/six months later, they're still feeling better as long as they continue to do the activities. So happiness can be increased. For a while people thought that perhaps it couldn't. It might be something that you're just sort of born with. And that's partially true. People have different starting points but it can be increased but the key caveat there is with practice. So if people practice for a few weeks and stop, they will not continue to be happier. So I think that's probably the biggest take-home message from the science. Yes, it can be increased but only if you create regular habits and you continue to practice them, which is part why we thought Happify was so important cos it's a vehicle to help encourage habits.

Gregory Hansell
Maybe this is an obvious question but is it easier to increase your happiness with these methods when things are generally going well versus when they're going badly or difficulty, or is it about the same?

Dr. Parks
Well, I actually think the data suggests that people tend to benefit the most when they start trying to improve their happiness from a pretty bad place. So if they come in and they are experiencing some distress, these activities can be quite potent. I'm not making claims about clinical depression or any sort of severe disorder but those who come in with a lower starting point on our happiness scale seem to improve the most readily, compared to people who come in and are already in pretty good shape. Those people also improve but it takes them longer to get going with it, while we see these more immediate increases among the people who come in and have more room for growth.

Gregory Hansell
Oh that is really interesting. Is that a question of motivation, when you're really down in the dumps, maybe you're more motivated? Interesting.

Dr. Parks
Yeah. Yeah. I do think of motivation is a piece. There's also just more room for improvement. So there's just more ability to improve.

Gregory Hansell
But I don't want anyone at home to think, "I'm not doing too badly. Maybe I shouldn't start."

Dr. Parks
No. Certainly. Like I said. It takes a little bit longer for people to get started but we find that people with higher well-being are also improving.

Gregory Hansell
And if you're listening out there and you're really having a difficult time, I think this sounds like a great series of techniques and a wonderful app to help you get on your way. So Dr. Parks. Tell us why is it so important for people to find ways to take care of themselves and prioritise their happiness? Obviously we all want to feel better but is it more than that? How essential is happiness to our lives?

Dr. Parks
Well, there's starting to be such an overwhelming body of literature that finds that happiness is not just fun and pleasant but actually directly related to all sorts of things that we want. I think most of us want things like success professionally or in relationships. So people who report well-being earlier in life, who seem to have a propensity for high well-being, go on to become more successful in pretty much every domain from performance at work and income to likelihood of being happily partnered with somebody. Furthermore there are also physical health benefits that seem to be connected to happiness. Again, this is looking at people earlier in their lives. So you can't be like, "Oh they're successful. That's why they're happy." This is in high school before they're successful. And people who are happier earlier in their lives, go on to, not only continue to be happy, but also to live longer, to have fewer illnesses, to have the illnesses they get be milder. So there are all sorts of really impressive effects on physical health. Actually the thing to me that was amazing is that the effect of happiness on longevity is actually greater than the effect of smoking on longevity.

Gregory Hansell
Wow! That is incredible actually.

Dr. Parks
So we know that smoking obviously reduces your lifespan but happiness improves it more than smoking reduces it.

Gregory Hansell
Wow! Thats astonishing actually. How does happiness relate to other factors like confidence or self-esteem?

Dr. Parks
Thats a hard question because, to some extent, its sort of difficult to distinguish all of that. So, for example, if a person is happy is that, in part, defined as feeling like theyre pretty satisfied with themselvesit's hard to separate those things. I wonder to what extent some researchers, maybe we've all been talking about the same thing and calling them different names.

Gregory Hansell
Yea. I was wondering that myself actually. Thats interesting. I sawI was very impressed by the fact that 86% of people who use Happify feel improvement within two months. So what have you heard specifically from people who have used the app? What are they telling you?

Dr. Parks
Well, one thing that I think is worth pointing out is that when we first started developing Happify, I was very much, like well, if there isn't a study saying that it works, it can't be on there but they did add some engaging elements and games that are lighter and theyre based on the science but theyre more about engaging users than they are about conveying scientific content and I was initially really sceptical about these components but more and more we hear users saying that thats kind of what got them hooked and what kept them around long enough that they would then go in and do the scientific content. So I'm really a believer of the games now because they seem to be one of the first things that users do and particularly when we get somebody whos feeling pretty down, they might not be up for a complex activity that involves reading and writing but they can play a game. And if that game can just give them enough of a boost that they are up for the next step, then they're able to get that scientific content. So I actually really appreciate that marriage of the science with the technology of engagement. We hear a lot from our users that that is essential and theyre getting attached to the site long enough to really engage with the science.

Gregory Hansell
Well, Im really happy to hear you say that. As you may have heard in our introduction, were very much involved in the positive psychology in form games space and I think whats really interesting about games is that its not just that they pull people in, but games are immersive, imaginative, interactive. They really have a quality to pull people in and to be habit-forming more so than other things. So I think games do have a powerful ability to affect peoples lives and if its trying to affect it for the better, then all the better.

Dr. Parks
I agree.

Gregory Hansell
So, let me ask you a question. I ask a question of thisthis is my final question every week to most of our guests. In this case, how do you hope that Happify is helping to make the world a better place?

Dr. Parks
That is a great question and actually something Im really glad that you asked. So, I teach abnormal psychology. Thats one of the classes that I teach at the college level. And one of the things that I'm always telling my students is that not only are things like depression or especially subclinical depression so widespread, they also go largely untreated because people don't pursue treatment, especially if they have something at the subclinical level where they wouldnt be diagnosed with depression. So theyre suffering. Theyre experiencing impairment but there's nothing for them and, if there was, they probably wouldn't be pursuing it to begin with. So I hope that Happify is providing something that is easily accessible, that can help people experiencing moderate distress who might not have another option or might not pursue it. And I know that weve managed to impact, or at least weve managed to reach, over 3 million people at this point. So my hope is that it will only continue to grow in its reach to make this kind of dense in the level of distress among people who arent going to get treatment, who arent severe enough to get treatment but who could really use it, whose productivity is lower because their distress levels are high. If we can make a dent on that, I will be very happy.

Gregory Hansell
You can learn more about Happify by going to happify.com. Dr. Parks, thank you for joining us today on Better Worldians Radio.

Dr. Parks
Thank you.

Gregory Hansell
Better Worldians Radio is brought to you today by Better Worldians Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is to make the world a better place by encouraging the very best in everyone. We believe it is essential to plant flowers, not just pull weeds. We focus on positive thinking, positive values, positive actions. In short, our vision is to bring out the better worldian in everybody so that we can all make it a better world. But we cant do it without your help. Donations support our Better Worldians podcast as well as going towards developing new features like articles, videos, blogs and much more. Go to betterworldians.org and become a part of this important mission. And until next time, please be a better worldian.