Can Your Phone Make You Happier?

Smartphones are addictive but can they also make you healthier and happier?

Cara Delevingne. Picture / @chaos

The app on my iPhone piped up. “What’s your mood?’’ it asked. ‘‘Frustrated,’’ I wrote.

I’d been procrastinating writing this article by reading the news on my phone, even though I’d clicked on the headlines minutes earlier. Seconds later, someone on Moodtrack’s public forum ‘‘liked’’ my status. I updated it to ‘‘smug’’, an upward line on my personal mood graph confirming my emotional state had improved.

It seems an oxymoron that our smartphones could be used to better our mental health. Especially given our growing tendency to prioritise Twitter-surfing over daydreaming, to text while crossing the road, to check Instagram while on a date. But now there are hundreds of so-called “mood apps” that claim to do just that.

Moodtrack, for instance, invites you to record the way you’re feeling, rate its intensity and add a note to explain what caused you to feel that way.

Over time, the app gives you an idea of your emotional patterns and triggers. You can also connect with other users. ‘Only a handful of people have remembered my birthday’, wrote one gloomy Moodtrack user, beneath which several others had posted uplifting messages.

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A quick scroll through the app store reveals an endless stream of guided meditation apps — Smiling Mind, for instance has been used in schools and organisations around Australia, and Headspace is recognised by Kiwi mental health professionals as a worthwhile way to take some time out.

Then there are the endless options to keep tabs on your mood, eating habits, attitude and sleep patterns. Australian app MoodMission uses cognitive behavioural therapy to help with anxiety and depression.

GoodGuide lets you scan a product on the grocery store shelf to check its ingredients, leading to (hopefully) healthier choices. Dream:On is a global app-based experiment to investigate whether you can influence your dreams by playing soundscapes throughout the night.

“It’s interesting [mood apps] are arising at a time when mindfulness is such a buzzword,” says Auckland psychotherapist Lynne Dunphy. “Mindfulness is all about being in the present and not splitting our attention, and I wonder if part of its popularity is in response to the hugely diverse range of tools that take us away from relationships or activities that might be more meaningful.”

We’ve all spotted smartphone zombies, perhaps even in ourselves. Yet the irony is that apps likely to be downloaded onto our smartphones suggest happiness can be had at the touch of a button.

Take Mojo, a sort of on-the-go gratitude journal, yours through the app store for $5.99. ‘‘List today’s best moments,’’ it says. ‘‘Do this daily and rewire your brain while creating a memoir of your best life.”

Psychologists have long promoted an attitude of gratitude as one of the quickest ways to improve wellbeing but I was sceptical that adding to my daily to-do list — another list no less — would have any benefit. Then again, if I was already addicted to my iPhone, I might as well use it to my advantage, right?

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I sat at my desk and typed in the first thing I could think of: ‘‘My dog licking my face before I left the house this morning’’. To my surprise, my flat post-lunch fuzz lifted and I felt an instant wave of love for my furry friend.

Should I go back into Moodtrack and record my newfound sense of relief? I’d be here all day, recording, feeling, recording, feeling. However, I did feel happier, the tiniest shift. ‘‘Hope is like a bird that senses the dawn and carefully starts to sing while it is still dark,’’ read the quote that popped up when I next logged in.

Could I have simply jotted my moods on paper, or thought about the moments to be grateful for on the way home? Probably, but there’s something pleasing about being prompted to do so, transforming an unconscious thought into something tangible. Not quite as tangible though, as a real conversation.

“As human beings we are hardwired for human contact, remembering that babies’ brains actually develop through mirroring; a process dependent on eye contact and the caring voice of an attuned person such as their mother and father,” says Auckland psychotherapist Emma Harris.

“We still need this mirroring as adults so if you can talk to a caring person face-to-face about any issues, for example low mood or anxiety, then you are more likely to feel heard and understood, improving your sense of emotional wellbeing. An app can’t do that.

“Each time we are looking at our phone we’re not looking another person in the eye and connecting in a real way.”

Psychotherapist Lynne Dunphy suggests asking yourself the following questions.

• Is my smartphone use interfering with my work?
• Is it affecting my relationships? (I.e, is my partner unhappy with my degree of use?)
• Is it affecting my health? (Regular texters may develop occupational overuse syndrome, aka “text thumb” or “text neck” or miss out on adequate sleep.)
• Am I coming into contact with the law? (I.e, unable to put my phone down while driving?)
• Do my devices, favourite sites and apps add something useful and complementary to my life or are they just another chore I’m struggling to manage?
• What do I really want when I pick up my smartphone? Company? Am I bored? Are there other ways to use my time that could be more interesting, fun or satisfying?

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New Zealand Herald

New Zealand Herald

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