Get Appy: One Woman’s Quest To App Her Way To Joy

This month’s theme is HAPPINESS, because March = spring and with it, the knowledge that you’ve made it through the waking nightmare that was winter 2017–8 (RIP).

Going by Black Mirror, older technophobes, and the scream of outrage I let out upon opening Instagram to find that another of my high school friends is on a blissful tropical holiday, our phones are making us unhappy. A recent study in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that “problematic” smartphone use is consistently related to depression, which makes sense, given that other studies, like this Baylor University research, have shown that we use often use our phones in an effort to repair bad moods. Between everyone else living their best life on Instagram or the lack of Facebook likes for a recent post, it’s easy to see how our phones can only bring us down more.

But is the opposite also true? I spent a week exploring some of the app store’s “happiness boosting” options, tracing my mood, and seeing how various apps affected it. All aboard the optimism express!

Day One: Drink

It’s the cure for all ills, right? Depression, health, a glowing face: drink more water. Most of my water is filtered through one of the eight billion cups of tea I consume a day, so this seems like an easy fix. I download Water Your Body, plug in my weight, and am told I should drink about 8.8 cups of water a day. No problemo.

Every hour or so my phone glugs like water in the sink and I agreeably trot out for another glass. Unfortunately, in the evening I lose track of time and have a few beers instead, which means I have to skull three glasses of water before bed to make my quota. I go to sleep feeling mildly ill and get up four times through the night to pee, mitigating any good mood the water might have put me in.

Unfortunately, my skin looks irritatingly good the next morning.

Mood Meter: 6/10

Day Two: Meditate

Here’s a confession: before this I’d never meditated in my life. I’m the kind of person who resents a walk to the Späti on the corner if I don’t have my headphones; being left alone with my own thoughts is like forcing me to listen to a horrible podcast called Dumb Things You’ve Done. But everywhere I looked, Headspace kept coming up, with its comforting British narrator and its baby steps approach. I tried it out.

Anyway, it fucking works. Don’t worry, I’m as annoyed as you. But three minutes of sitting quietly on the edge of my bed and concentrating on my breathing left me calmer and less stressed. Afterward I drank some water, pet my cat, and sent four emails I’d been putting off with barely a qualm.

Mood Meter: 9/10

Day Three: Play

SuperBetter takes advantage of a very neat idiotic idea that I’ve carried around for too long: if you can trick me into thinking something boring is a fun game, I’m much more likely to do it. You know, like a child.

SuperBetter allows you to complete quests and fight bad guys by performing tasks geared towards self-care: go for a walk, make human contact, do some jumping jacks, notice three beautiful things, and (of course) drink a glass of water. Some are boring, some obvious, all of them little mood-boosters that are easy to forget. I feel quite silly, tapping my wife’s arm to make eye contact with her, or jumping up and down before sitting back down to work, but it’s satisfying to check activities off and be told that I’ve leveled up and added +1 to my resilience. I’m ready for my superpowers now, thanks.

Mood Meter: 7/10

Day Four: Thank

Grateful’s simple premise is to take a moment in your day to think about what you’re grateful for, and write it down. I spend quite a lot of time thinking about the good things that have happened to me, but never in a simple, positive manner; rather, with a mix of old school Catholic guilt and an old anxious habit of balancing out the good with the bad — okay, I didn’t get around to cleaning, but I made a nice dinner. But the act of writing down the good without the bad, just noticing some positive moments, actually made me feel a lot better. There was no need to follow it up with “so it’s okay that you didn’t make that scary call to your landlord, you’re still an adult!” It was just a nice list of good things that had happened. I looked at it the next day, too.

Mood Meter: 8/10

Day Five: Exercise

UGH. It had to happen, and in this week of -12 Celsius I’ve put it off too long, but here we go: an exercise app. Regular exercise is, as we all unfortunately know, persistently linked to happiness, and tragically easy to do — a University of Vermont study found that as little as 20 minutes of exercise can improve our mood for up to 12 hours. But 20 minutes seems awfully long in this unseasonable spring. Scrolling through the App Store, I find the 7 Minute Workout. Aw, yiss.

For a sleepily sedentary girl like myself, the app’s frankly gruelling routine — push-ups, crunches, step-ups, squats, planks, lunges, and too much more — felt like a lot longer than seven minutes. I staggered through it panting, swearing, and frightening my neighbours with the jumping jacks. But when it was over, I did carry around that sweaty smug glow for the rest of the day. Going by the UoV’s standards, for only 7 minutes of exercise I should have gotten about four and a half hours of happiness, but I stayed serenely pleased with myself all day. Though that might have also had something to do with dessert.

Mood Meter: 9/10

Day Six: Chill

Today I gave into the Instagram ads that have been plaguing me and downloaded Calm, whose 15-second video spots beg me to stop and watch a lightning storm flash across my screen. Calm is another meditation app, albeit a slightly more nuanced one — it allows you to pick the issues that especially plague you (sleep, motivation, anxiety) and delivers a tailored plan to address them. It’s also £39.99 per year.

Perhaps it was my internal scoffing at paying to stare at a dull gif of a waterfall, or the fact that this meditation guide is a perky American woman who sounds like she’s come straight from running a Yoga class for smug moms, but this time I wasn’t feeling it. “Congratulations on completing your first meditation session,” she breathed at the end; yeah, yeah, I thought, deleting my subscription and wandering off to find some crisps.

Mood Meter: 4/10

Day Seven: Pay It Forward

After six days of self-indulgently monitoring my own happiness, it seemed time that I gave back to the world with a few random acts of kindness. Besides that, consistent studies — like this one from the Journal of Social Psychology — have found that performing even small acts of kindness make us happier, and incidentally, when we’re happy we’re also much more likely to be kind. I downloaded ARK to monitor my progress: a sweetly cartoonish app that prompts me to do an act of kindness every couple of hours, and sets me a 15-minute timer in which to do it.

Actually, this experience was vaguely stressful, and the ability to mark my act as “Mission Complete” and immediately be told “What a champ!” made the whole process feel a little transactory. I sent an email to a lonely family friend, played with my cat, and brought my wife breakfast in bed, but knowing I was doing these things for the app somehow robbed them of their generosity. Maybe it’s better, after all, to trust in the logic of happiness = kindness, continue making myself happy, and keep an eye out for ways to spread the joy… without marking my progress like some self-satisfied boy scout.

Mood Meter: 5/10

A Highly Scientific Conclusion

Despite initial skepticism, this was a cheery week. There were no great moments of euphoria, but equally the day-to-day drag of anxiety and low moods eased; partly because when I was consistently thinking about my moods, it was easier to notice irrational bad moods and banish them. Using the apps felt a little over-the-top sometimes, but making ‘feeling better’ one of the chores of my day definitely resulted in a minute, refreshing uptick in my mood. My week’s trial is over, but I’ll probably keep using my phone to remind me to look after myself. Although if you’d like me to investigate whether a tropical holiday makes me happier, please do get in touch.

Written by Mikaella Clements