Happiness is a practice. People can achieve happiness by applying specific skills to their interaction with the world. These skills include gratitude (reflecting on and expressing thankfulness for positive aspects of one’s life), mindfulness (practicing awareness and acceptance of the present moment), and problem solving (reflecting on thoughts and feelings to find alternative interpretations and solutions). About 44% of school in the U.S. include programs that teach such social and emotional skills to children (e.g., Penn Resiliency Program), and a number of investigations have demonstrated the effectiveness of these approaches. However, one of the challenges faced by school-based programs is that they provide few (if any) opportunities for children to extend the practice of these skills to their lives outside of the classroom. Technology may help address this gap by providing engaging opportunities to revisit happiness practices outside of the classroom and integrate them into the everyday lives of children.
Prof. Stephen Schueller (Clinical Psychologist, Northwestern University) and I partnered to consider and design new technologies to support children in practicing gratitude, mindfulness, and problem solving skills. While Stephen has a great deal of expertise in positive psychology and I know a fair bit about designing technology for children, we also wanted to make sure that our approach represented children’s voices, priorities, and values. We collaborated with the Y.O.U. (Youth & Opportunity United) summer program to train twelve children in becoming “Happiness Inventors.” Through fourteen 90-minute sessions, we worked with the children to understand their definitions of happiness, to teach them age-appropriate gratitude, mindfulness, and problem solving exercises, and to provide them with the knowledge and structure to become inventors of new technologies to help kids practice happiness skills. Through these session, children brainstormed over 400 ideas and developed many of these ideas as sketches, prototypes, and videos. The video the children made documenting a few of their outcomes is below.
By conducting a content analysis of the children’s work, we found a number of important implications for future technologies aiming to support the practice of happiness skills. First, we found that children’s interpretations of positive psychology concepts like gratitude, mindfulness, and problem solving may not always match adult interpretations and perspectives of these concepts. For example, many children’s interpretations of happiness across all three concepts revolved around external influences on happiness, such as getting practical help (e.g., with homework) or avoiding unpleasant situations. These may not be typical concepts within positive psychology, but these concepts are worth considering when developing interventions for children. If a child’s mental model of happiness and how it can be achieved does not match the model forwarded by a particular intervention, the intervention’s effect may be limited for that child. Researchers should make the effort to engage with the mental models of the particular child audience and, if necessary, work on changing counterproductive belief structures before deploying positive technology intervention.
Second, the children’s designs pointed to a number of specific features and engagement approaches that may increase the appeal of positive technologies. One noteworthy example is that children often imagined technological solutions that could understand and react to various internal states, such as thoughts and emotions. Indeed, a growing number of efforts are attempting to glean psychological and emotional states from various affective computing technologies as diverse as EEG, galvanic skin response, and automated sentiment analysis on social media. Positive technologies that make use of such features may have particular appeal for children who are still learning to understand and interpret their affective states and the affective states of others. Another noteworthy aspect is in the number and diversity of approaches that the children posited for encouraging sustained engagement with interventions. While gamification and social interaction were two important approaches that have been considered in a number of previous interventions, there were also a few surprising ideas. One of these surprises was sensory engagement. Many of the children’s ideas posited that somebody could be motivated to engage with an intervention simply because it was beautiful and appealing to the senses, whether it be visual, aural, olfactory, or haptic. This is not a well-explored approach in the design of positive technologies and it would be interesting to know the smells associated with happiness (our participants suggested some, which included warm chocolate chip cookies and the smell of one’s own bed).
Finally, another design insight from this investigation emerged from observing the types of technologies that children cited in their inventions. It was clear that children were not drawn to interventions for laptops or desktops. At the very least, the implication of this is that web-based interventions for children should be designed using a mobile-first paradigm. However, we should emphasize that this is just a stop-gap solution, as even mobile-first web-based solutions struggle to achieve sustained engagement. Indeed, there may be an opportunity to increase engagement by thinking outside the box (or the computer, as the case may be here). The children in our study suggested a number of solutions that went beyond apps and websites. These instantiations included wearable accessories and apparel, toys and gadgets that may operate independently or in conjunction with a phone app, smart furniture and home infrastructure, robots and drones, and public kiosks and displays. It may be fruitful for designers to consider their positive technology interventions not as “sites” that children “visit,” but rather as tools that live alongside with them in the real physical world.
There’s a lot more in our Journal of Medical Internet Research paper, so check it out if you’re interested!
Also published on Medium.