Play Your Way To Happy

Acacia Parks ’03 at Happify’s office in New York City.  Photo by Mark Abramson

Can a smartphone app help you find happiness? Psychologist Acacia Parks ’03 has a pretty good idea.

By Ann-Derrick Gaillot ’12

One March evening, at the end of a long workday, I found myself feeling down and needing to recharge. Normally in moments like these I plop down on the couch and watch a Netflix show until bedtime rolls near. But on this particular day, I brewed some herbal tea and logged onto Happify.

Happify is an unlikely application with an extraordinary aim. It’s a gaming system that trains you to overcome your emotional distress. The idea runs like this: If you spend a bit of time every day “exercising” well-being, little by little you will build the skills you need to become happier.

Even I, a believer in all things convenient, raised a skeptical eyebrow at first. Play your way to happy? Please. But Happify now boasts more than three million registered users, and the company claims that 86% of frequent users report feeling more positive after eight weeks of play. And the science undergirding all of this? Believe it or not, it was provided by a Reedie.

Acacia Parks ’03, chief scientist at Happify, is responsible for making sure that each activity is scientifically sound. Based in Ohio, where she is also an associate professor of psychology at Hiram College, Parks has built her career on using science to help people help themselves. And it all started with her senior thesis.

Entering Reed, Parks was a free-thinking singer from California in search of a school that wouldn’t box her in. It took time to discover her focus. “Originally I wanted to do psychiatry, but Prof. Arthur Glasfeld [chemistry 1989–] kicked my ass so hard in chemistry,” Parks said with a laugh. “Part of why I loved Reed was because I could get my ass kicked in a class and earn a C and be like, ‘I’m still glad I took that class.’” She majored in psychology and took a class from Prof. Keith Herman [psychology 2000–02], where she experienced a moment of inspiration that would define her career.

Prof. Herman introduced the class to the idea of bibliotherapy, where people learn coping techniques through a book rather than with a therapist. But it was the supporting evidence that really got her attention. Bibliotherapy can be just as effective as traditional psychotherapy “That made my head explode,” said Parks. Her thoughts immediately turned to a statistic she learned from Herman: two-thirds of people living with a mental illness in the U.S. do not receive treatment. “I was like, ‘Wow, people can’t get therapy. People don’t necessarily pursue therapy. And that’s just the people with a mental illness.” Parks wrote her thesis on how to use books to train college freshmen to fight emotional distress and foster resilience. After graduating from Reed in 2003, she earned her PhD in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and continued exploring how to make therapeutic interventions accessible to the masses.

While pursuing her doctorate, Parks conducted research with Martin Seligman, a pioneer of positive psychology, on strategies for preventing depression among college students. She believed that positive psychology has enormous potential, but grew increasingly frustrated with the limited reach of face-to-face therapy. “I went back to the technology piece,” said Parks. “I kept finding myself pulled back towards that accessibility question. How are people going to get this, how are people going to afford it?”

For her next project, Parks developed a computer-based resilience course. It worked, but only for the tiny number of subjects who were motivated enough to stick with the whole eight-week course—98% of the users quit early. Was there a way, she wondered, to make the therapeutic activities fun?

Happify app

Photo by Mark Abramson

In 2010, Parks presented her research at a conference, where she met two gaming entrepreneurs with a crazy idea. Inspired by Seligman’s 2011 book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, Ofer Leidner and Tomer Ben-Kiki sought to create a game that could make people happier. They enlisted Parks to help develop their nascent idea. And though she was hesitant at first, she was impressed by their dedication to putting the science first. Together, Parks, Leidner, and Ben-Kiki developed Happify.

The app exercises your skills in savoring, thanking, aspiring, giving, and empathizing. These skills—collectively known as STAGE—form the basic tenets of positive psychology. It begins with a quiz posing a number of questions about your general outlook on and satisfaction with life. From my answers, the program assessed my baseline happiness level and recommended activities for me, such as “Motivation Tricks to Get Fit” and “Stop the Worry Cycle.” Feeling tender, I chose “Overcome Your Insecurities & Build Confidence.” And over the next couple of weeks, I dedicated about 20 minutes each day to short activities training me to recognize my negative thoughts and my accomplishments.

As I kept playing, I found myself picking up coping strategies. Things like setting small goals, naming and confronting distressing emotions, and meditation and mindfulness became games—something fun. Even better, I could see my progress.

Leading up to the app’s launch in 2013, Parks developed the well-being measurement tool Happify depends on. She also compiled the best, proven strategies from various psychological traditions. “Some of it’s positive psychology, some of it’s cognitive therapy, some of it’s mindfulness—but everything that we put on there has a scientific basis, and we wanted everybody to know,” she says. “We wanted people to be able to make informed decisions about what they’re choosing to do and to see that there’s research behind it.”

The key to happiness, Parks argues, lies in understanding the idea of happiness itself. Happiness doesn’t mean moving through life without any emotional challenges. It is a combination, rather, of good mood and satisfaction with one’s life. “People have this idea that it’s dependent on your environment or your circumstances or your achievements—that if you just lived your life right you would be happy naturally,” Parks says. But viewing changing your environment as the way of changing emotional well-being may be misguided. “The clear way to change something is often to work on it on a daily basis, and that’s what we do at Happify. We give people very specific skills, very specific instructions for how to do them, and the impetus to do them every day.”

Today, Happify boasts over 3 million registered users and is shifting towards a business-facing model. It currently serves a number of clients, including two national health plans and a large national retailer, who license Happify for their employees. And now that the company’s reach is growing, the possible impact of her work is only motivating Parks further. “When Ofer told me that we had a million users and just the enormity of the responsibility of creating something that several, now several million, people have used, to me that was so moving and also something that I don’t know that I ever dreamed was ever going to happen,” said Parks.

Now, as chief scientist, one of Parks’s main focuses is the upcoming launch of Happify Labs, a platform made for Parks to conduct controlled research, bring in outside collaborators, and explore how Happify can be used to improve well-being in conjunction with medical interventions such as diabetes management. Parks is happy her work has been able to help so many already. But her dream is to make it even bigger. “With a user base that big, we really can start to think about having an impact,” says Parks, recalling the statistic that struck her years ago. “That’s scale-​able. This is something that could really make a difference.”

With a few weeks of Happify under my belt, I can confidently say I have a few more emotional coping tools in my modest but growing wellness arsenal. Have I overcome all of my insecurities forever? No. Have I reached a level of unwavering confidence and self-assuredness? No. But I’ve practiced tools to help me do both through a type of fun-based training I had never experienced. And I’m optimistic that Happify can make a dent in the unhappiness and emotional distress that is so widespread in American society.

But, on the other hand, maybe that’s just my savoring and aspiring skills getting stronger.

—Author info: Ann-Derrick Gaillot is a writer and aspiring game show contestant. She lives somewhere in North America with her partner, Miles, and their young plants.