Unhappy? There's an App for That: Digital Happiness, Data Mining, and Networks of Well-Being

paper, specified "long paper"
  1. 1. Jill Belli

    New York City Technical College, CUNY

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The content of well-being and the means for increasing it, at both individual and societal levels, are fundamentally utopian concerns. Consequently, positive psychology, the science of human flourishing, is an essentially utopian project: it intervenes in what it considers an unsatisfactory present and attempts to create (and educate for) something better. Its explicitly activist and pragmatic agendas recently have been bolstered by the explosion of research into what I term “digital happiness.” In his 2011 book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, leading positive psychologist Martin Seligman briefly outlines “positive computing” as using technological means and methods (such as data mining, social networking, and personalized apps) to “go beyond the slow progress in positive education to disseminate flourishing massively” (94).1 Digital happiness proponents have taken up this call fervently, and positive psychologists, data analysts, coders, and policy makers regularly invoke the utopian possibilities of both technology and happiness as they collaborate for salvation on a grand scale: the H(app)athon Project hacks happiness in order to “save the world”2; video gamers and virtual reality developers (in Jane McGonigal’s words) create their products to “change the world”3; computer scientists offer their “Hedonometer” to measure, and therefore “improve or understand” well-being more completely;4 and the newly launched social network “Happier” will help “you feel freaking awesome.”5
Digital happiness initiatives are a fascinating site of inquiry because they combine the close reading and personal tracking aspects of the the quantified self movement with the large scale data mining, aggregating, and visualization efforts associated with the digital humanities, “distant reading” (Moretti),6 and “network sense” (Mueller).7 Fueled by algorithms for happiness and subjecting qualitative phenomena to quantitative analysis (in ways reminiscent of Jeremy Bentham’s “felicific calculus” and the “mathematically infallible happiness” in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s classic dystopian novel, We8), these initiatives track and triangulate individual internal emotional states, networked virtual data and connections, and real social relations and policies. In this paper, I first provide an overview of these varied attempts to assess and maximize well-being using big data, sentiment analysis, crowdsourcing, social networking, the quantified self, and biometrics, positioning their rhetoric and ideology within the larger discourses of self-help, positive psychology and utopian studies. I then critically interrogate these projects’ utopian aspirations, analyzing their aims and methods for instantiating different ways of being and living, of creating both the happy individual and the good society in the image of (and from the) raw data of individuals’ emotions.
I ask what digital happiness methods, tools, applications, and findings teach us about what we should desire (and not desire), what we should value (and not value), what type of people we should be (and not be), and what type of actions we should take (and not take). Throughout the paper, I am in dialogue with Sara Ahmed’s notion of happiness as performative and normative in The Promise of Happiness(2010), and I highlight “not only what makes happiness good but how happiness participates in making things good” (13) and how “happiness shapes what coheres as a world” (2).9 In doing so, I not only critique digital happiness initiatives on an ideological level but also on technical and methodological levels. In particular, I interrogate happiness/well-being apps' use of both active and passive data to fuel their algorithms; the methods of quantification, semantic analysis, and natural language processing in studies using social media to assess/analyze/improve happiness, well-being, and life satisfaction; how people interact with the technology that is tracking their happiness, and how these users often skew their responses in public, networked settings in order to present versions of their best selves to others. Ahmed has argued that happiness's methods of self-reporting “both presumes the transparency of self-feeling (that we can say and know how we feel), as well as the unmotivated and uncomplicated nature of self-reporting. If happiness is already understood to be what you want to have, then to be asked how happy you are is not to be asked a neutral question” (5). In addition to this problem, already embedded within the positive psychology methodology, digital happiness assumes the transparency and translatability of language/texts and affect/emotions, and undertheorizes how the dynamics of a digital networked space change the way we communicate and connect with others. Digital happiness proponents advocate their work as contributing to the creation of a more utopian future, and argue it is democratic because it is tracking raw data from the people themselves. But the questions of what raw data is assessed and who determines the metrics raise crucial questions about the type of vision these digital happiness experts put forth.
This paper also contextualizes my work on “digital happiness” within the larger discourses of both the self-help genre and positive psychology, and demonstrates how digital happiness showcases the competing tensions of individual improvement and social justice, apolitical progress and politically engaged action, and descriptive reporting and prescriptive advice in both. In doing so, I highlight positive psychology’s “discursive and political labor” (Yen 76).10 Particularly troubling is positive psychology’s conceptualization of its own politics and pedagogy, which teach us to be certain types of people in pursuit of the good life without consideration that its notion of the “good” is not morally universal but inextricably bound to the discipline’s ideological assumptions, cultural contexts (in particular, American individualism), and a particular interpretation of what is “positive,” valuable, and desirable.
I argue that, while digital happiness research’s use of big data and crowdsourcing partially tempers the rampant individualism that dominates positive psychology’s vision of the good life, its notions of the quantified self glorify the desirability of self-monitoring, normalcy, and discipline in the Focualdian sense, which is a hallmark of much of the self-help genre (and positive psychology more generally). Self-help “render[s] social relations of power invisible and non-negotiable” and “counsels subjects to sculpt a meaningful life without addressing or questioning the horizon of social relations and the contexts of social power” (Rimke 65). Instead of serving as outlets for potential change, “[p]ractices of self-help are thus connected to the management and government of populations” (Rimke 72).11 Similarly, self-help catches its users “a cycle of seeking individual solutions to problems that are social, economic, and political in origin” (McGee 177).12 Therefore, its aggregated view of subjective well-being still sidesteps the important work of defining the ideological content/function of happiness and addressing its role in maintaining structural inequality.
This paper argues that positive psychology and, by extension, many digital happiness projects that are built on its values/methods, is inherently conservative, in the sense that it does not actively encourage radical possibility and transformation. While it is useful to identify and nurture the strengths that we already have, to reflect on experiences and create a positive meaning/communicate a positive message for them, and to derive satisfaction and pleasure from our activities/connections, these techniques run the risk of functioning remedially and driving us to become more complacent with “what is.” This limiting of possibility is one of the most troubling aspects of positive psychology’s work. As Levitas (2013) reminds us, the refusal to limit possibility is an essential part of the utopian project: “Utopia also entails refusal, the refusal to accept that what is given is enough. It embodies the refusal to accept that living beyond the present is delusional, the refusal to take a face value current judgements of the good or claims that there is no alternative” (17).13
I enact this utopian “refusal,” by arguing that positive psychology and digital happiness together create and endorse descriptions of and prescriptions for happiness and well-being that are quickly forming a unified front, a standardized, monolithic discourse that limits possibility. These fields matter, immensely, particularly because research on subjective well-being is being institutionalized prior to (or in some cases, in spite of) conversations about its assumptions, values, goals, and consequences. Therefore, this paper opens up a crucial conversation about what gets excluded in current discussions of well-being and digital happiness projects' assessment and promotion of it.


1. Seligman, Martin E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being. New York: Free Press. Print.
2. The H(app)athon Project.happathon.com/
3. McGonigal, Jane (2011). Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York: Penguin.
4. Hedonometer.www.hedonometer.org/index.html
5. Happier.www.happier.com/
6. Moretti, Franco (2005). Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History. London: Verso. Print.
7. Mueller, Derek (2012). Views from a Distance: A Nephological Model of the CCCC Chairs' Addresses, 1977-2011. 'Kairos' 16.2 (Spring 2012). www.technorhetoric.net/16.2/topoi/mueller/
8. Zamyatin, Yevgeny. (1924). We. New York: EOS, 1999. Print.
9. Ahmed, Sara (2010). The Promise of Happiness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Print.
10. Yen, Jeffrey. (2010) Authorizing Happiness: Rhetorical Demarcation of Science and Society in Historical Narratives of Positive Psychology. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology 30.2: 67–78.
11. Rimke, Heidi Marie (2000). Governing Citizens Through Self-help Literature. Cultural Studies 14.1: 61–78.
12. McGee, Micki (2007). Self Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life. New York: Oxford University Press. Print.
13. Mueller, Derek (2012). Views from a Distance: A Nephological Model of the CCCC Chairs' Addresses, 1977-2011. 'Kairos' 16.2 (Spring 2012). www.technorhetoric.net/16.2/topoi/mueller/

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2014
"Digital Cultural Empowerment"

Hosted at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Université de Lausanne

Lausanne, Switzerland

July 7, 2014 - July 12, 2014

377 works by 898 authors indexed

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Conference website: https://web.archive.org/web/20161227182033/https://dh2014.org/program/

Attendance: 750 delegates according to Nyhan 2016

Series: ADHO (9)

Organizers: ADHO