Technologies That Can Rewire Happiness

  • 13 March 2016
  • sjanicke

Last week, I watched a conversation of a couple of well known scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison had with the Dalai Lama on how to bring more peace and well-being into the world (see video below). Even though not necessarily anything “new” came to the forefront, it was a great reminder that, in order to make this world a better place we need to start working on ourselves. We need to understand that we are all connected and rely on each other to make peace.

The Dalai Lama pointed out that it is importance to cultivate the heart along with the mind to increase well-being. Now I wonder: can technology assist us in that? Can we “Rewire Happiness” (I knew this name would make sense some day:)).

To think about this I want to focus on what the neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson refers to as the 4 constituents of well-being.

These 4 constituents of well-being all relate to specific neuro-circuits in the brain, which means that these aspects of well-being are not based off of what people may have said they experienced as happiness, but what was actually going on in peoples brain. On a neurological level. All of these circuits show neuroplasticity, which means they can be shaped by training and learning. Prof. Davidson says that because of this, we can take responsibility for how to shape our mind. Most of the time our brain is shaped unintentionally anyways, so why not strengthen those networks that support our well-being rather than networks that are less useful to us, such as knowing who won the latest battle in the TV show “Survivor” (no offense “Survivor” fans). 

Well-being is a skill, which means it can be learned, just like learning how to dance a tango or another language. Now, just like learning to dance the tango, we need to practice this. Often. In the same way we need to practice well-being often in order to see it emerge and manifest.

Here is a summary of Richard Davidsons talk on these 4 constituents of well-being and my take on how we can "rewire" them. 

1. Resilience. This means how fast we can recover from adversity. There are certain areas in the brain that come to a baseline faster after recovering from adversity for a resilient person compared to a non resilient person. And those people, whose resilience networks in the brain are faster in recovering back to baseline after an adversity, generally show greater well-being. How can technology assist us in that?

Rewire Resilience: Barbara Fredrickson, a well-known researcher in the field of positive psychology has shown that resilience can be enhanced through the experience of positive emotions. Ok, then how can we enhance positive emotions? Well, there is an app for that. It is called happify and it provides scientifically proven exercises and games that boost your mood and make you experience more positive emotions during your day. Not bad for an app. Now, there is also a new wearable device called Feel that measures your current state of emotions through physiological indicators such as skin conductance and blood volume pulse, and provides you with tools to improve your mood accordingly. This may be another tech to check out to increase positive emotions in our everyday life and therefore boost resilience. 


2. Positive Outlook: This is the ability to see the positives in the negatives or in others, and to savor positive experiences. Again, there is a specific circuitry for this positive outlook constituent in the brain. Here research shows that Love and Kindness Meditation can relatively quickly change this circuitry, which translates into a host of great well-being outcomes such as feeling more socially connected, more empathy, compassion and prosocial behaviors and it has been related to decreases in stress and even migraines. And these are just a couple of outcoems that have been linked with Love and Kindness Meditation (also known as LKM). Check out this complete list of 18 positive impacts LKM can have on our well-being. 

Rewire Positive Outlook: Now, of course, there is an app for practicing positive outlook through love and kindness mediation as well. I really like Stop, Breathe and Think that provides a variety of free guided meditations with different time intervals (3-10 minutes) and has a kindness and compassion meditation that get to what LKM does (which is bringing first, well wishes to oneself, and eventually to the whole world). I am also just trying this new app called Sattva which not only provides you with guided mediations, including a LKM, but also measures your heart rate (through the camera on your phone) at the beginning and at the end of your meditation and lets you compete in challenges, which is a great way to start up a practice. 

3. Attention. The researchers Killingsworth and Gilbert from Harvard University found in a large somewhat representative sample of the American population that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The research shows that on average, we mind wander for 47% of the day. This means that we don't pay attention to the present moment for basically half of our waking hours. Additionally, with the longitudinal data they had, the researchers could show that not paying attention to the present moment is causing unhappiness. Wow. This is something we rarely see in research. A causal relationship. So how can we train ourselves to pay more attention to what is, rather than being distracted by what was or could be?

Rewire Attention: Of course meditation is a great tool to practice focused attention. In fact, the muse, a neurofeedback device that helps you see when your mind is paying attention and when it is not, is a great technology to rewire attention. See my previous post here about how the muse works exactly. 

4. Generosity. When people are kind to others and altruistic then specific brain circuits again are active that are associated with well-being. Research is unambiguous in showing that giving to others or buying things for other people makes us more happy than, for example, buying things for ourselves. Interestingly enough, love and kindness meditation also makes us more prosocial.

Rewire Generosity and Kindness: Besides Random Acts of Kindness Challenges from the RAK organization, for example, there are of course a ton of wonderful apps out there to promote generosity and kindness. For example, there are apps to prevent cyberbullying, such as ReThink, there are RAK apps that provide you with ideas for kind actions everyday, or Karmasnap, an app that connects you with local organizations or events for you to volunteer or donate to. There is also KarmaKitchen where you pay for a meal of the next person in line, rather than your own, and Pivot TV, a socially responsible TV network that links TV shows and movies with social actions such as signing petitions or donating money to a worthy cause. 

It seems like technology, when used right, can boost a host of these well-being constituents. So, let's get on it! Let's Rewire Happiness:)