Interest in positive technology – or technology designed to improve the quality of our lives – has boomed over the last few years. Now we have everything from happiness apps to physiological sensors that detect stress to digital objects that remind you to practice gratitude. Creating better positive technologies represents a potential way to increase accessibility, affordability, and effectiveness of positive interventions. These efforts could decrease the economic cost of mental health care, increase engagement and well-being in the workplace, and help us overcome what is considered to be a growing mental health crisis.
But which positive technologies are likely to have the greatest impact and why? Read on to find out.
Four Types of Positive Technology
Most positive technologies fit in one of four categories. However, some fit in more than one category or merge technology with human interaction in interesting ways.
1. The Informational Type
This type of positive technology provides information on what contributes to positive outcomes including happiness and well-being. Most articles on Relationship Development and Transformation are an informational type of positive technology – they use technology to deliver you information that you could potentially use to enhance your well-being.
The problem with information – even high-quality information – is that increasing awareness about something does not, in itself, lead to behavior change. Although some research suggests that self-help books and other information on how to change your life can be helpful, information alone is unlikely to make a big impact on your life.
2. The Academic Type
This type of positive technology provides structured assignments, lessons, or activities that help you practice the skills that enhance happiness and well-being (e.g., Happify). If these assignments are completed frequently enough and/or the skills are practiced for long enough, these activities can rewire the brain in ways that contribute to longer-lasting well-being.
The problem with this approach is that we don’t tend to enjoy “school-like” assignments. Many people who try this approach don’t get very far before getting bored and giving up. Although there is great potential for impact, most people quit before making significant progress.
3. The Applied Approach
This type of positive technology further aids engagement and practice of skills that enhance well-being by merging practice with some other task or activity (like using a mindfulness app while walking to work). This approach can help increase adherence and engagement by allowing you to build skills while doing something you were already doing anyway.
The problem with this approach is that we still have to stay motivated enough to practice (and remember to practice), so we still have many of the same problems that emerge with the academic type. And most people run out of interest or motivation before making significant progress.
4. The Passive Approach
This type of positive technology aims to help you build skills unconsciously as a result of external cues rather than effortful practice. Often, passive positive technologies are not created for the sole purpose of increasing well-being. Rather, they aim to influence happiness unconsciously through the methods of engagement with the technology (e.g., positive social media or a gift-giving app that strengthens social connection).
The problem with this approach is that we need a lot of consistent external cues to shift our thoughts and behavior in ways that increase well-being in the long run.
Mixed-Type Positive Technologies
Not all positive technologies fit into the four types defined above. Many positive technologies merge different types to increase effectiveness or engagement.
Here are some examples of mixed-type positive technologies:
The Informational/Academic Type
• In this type of positive technology, you read about how to complete academic-style assignments that build happiness skills.
The Academic/Applied Type
• In this type of positive technology, you engage in assignments that build happiness skills, while simultaneously doing some other task or activity. For example, by playing happiness games.
The Applied/Passive Type
• In this type of positive technology, you build skills while simultaneously doing some other task or activity, as a result of external cues (requires effort to practice but not to remember to practice).
Although I focused here on the main types of positive technology, it is possible that any type of technology that delivers positive outcomes could be considered a positive technology. For example, text and video-based therapy use technology as a means for delivering information and activities (from a human) that increase mental health and well-being. And many technologies can either help or hurt depending on how you use them. Even Facebook, which is often bad for you, can potentially increase happiness. In a perfect world, all technologies would help our well-being. Unfortunately, at the moment, many of them do just the opposite.
Problems with Positive Technologies
Because positive technology is a relatively new phenomenon, there are still many problems that need to be solved. In addition to the problems raised above about specific types of positive technology, there are a number of other considerations that influence the potential impact that these technologies.
- Many positive technologies are based on instinct rather than research/data.
- Many positive technologies are not built by experts.
- Positive technologies tend to focus on what’s trending rather than what’s effective.
- Positive technologies are rarely tested to assess impact.
The majority of positive technologies still have some of these problems, but this is starting to change. Over the last few years, I have worked with lots of organizations to help implement the latest scientific research into their positive technology. This trend is likely to grow as the market for positive technology continues to grow.
Technology has provided an opportunity to deliver content and tools that change people’s lives. We are just beginning to see the many possibilities.