Can self-improvement apps create You 2.0?

January 17, 2017



 There are loads of apps that claim to use psychological principles to increase your emotional wellbeing or improve your performance. Some are aimed at niche markets, such as athletes, parents, or couples, while others are geared more generally towards boosting your physical health or mood.’s “Meditation to Relax, Focus and Sleep Better” includes guided meditations, nature sounds, and daily tasks that promise to reduce anxiety and relieve stress. The free download immediately takes you to a message to breathe and then turns your screen into a picturesque nature scene with waterfalls and chirping birds.

One of the free exercises is yoga breathing (inhale, hold it, exhale, and repeat). Another is the “Seven Days of Calm Experience.” Day One involves a nine-minute guided meditation in which you observe your breathing, accompanied by the sound of waves.

The final free portion of Calm is “Sleep,” which is very much like being told a bedtime story. The narrator guides you through settling in and closing your eyes and breathing, and then the 20-minute story starts.

The Brothers Grimm, this is not. No Big Bad Wolves or Wicked Witches or even a plot twist. My story was a highly descriptive walk through a forest, ending at the base of a waterfall (complete with waterfall sound effects). The trip ends with another breathing session.

Normally, “Your voice puts me to sleep,” is not a compliment, but I must say, the Calm narrator has the most soothing voice I’ve ever heard.

If you want to continue past the three free trial features, a subscription is $12.99 a month or $59.99 a year. For $399.99, you get a lifetime subscription.

The Track Your Happiness app boasts a more academic pedigree. It was designed by Matt Killingsworth as part of a research project for his PhD in psychology from Harvard. Killingsworth is studying “the relationship between happiness and the content of everyday experiences, the percentage of everyday experiences that are intrinsically valuable, and the degree of congruence between the causes of momentary happiness and of one’s overall satisfaction with life.”

Once you have downloaded the app/enrolled in Killingsworth’s study, you’ll receive two to eight text messages per day, asking you what activity you are currently engaged in, whether you’re doing it because you have to or because you want to, and how you are feeling. Be prepared to answer some fairly personal questions.

The study lasts 30 days (I’m on Day 20), and it is free because it’s research. You not only get a copy of the final results, but also a personal report that summarizes what circumstances seem to correlate with your personal level of happiness.

Patrick Cohen’s iPeak Coach is geared towards athletes, promising “mental toughness” and “confidence for success.” Upon downloading the app, you are given that day’s “sports success tip,” which includes things like reducing perfectionism in child athletes or getting off the “self-confidence roller coaster.” (Tip: Don’t tie your self-worth to wins and losses.)

For more than that, the Peak Performance programs range in cost from around $90 for the “Confident Athlete” or “Focused Athlete” programs (workbook included), all the way to $1,500 for the Mental Game Coaching Professional Certification Course.

Do these apps work? Will they lead to a happy, healthier, more self-confident, less anxious, and more rested version of yourself? That’s a difficult question to answer.

Taking a moment out of your day to breathe or count your blessings is certainly unlikely to hurt you. The emerging field of “positive psychology,” which focuses on achieving greater satisfaction rather than treating mental illness, has connected similar kinds of “mindfulness” exercises with an increase in positive mood.

However, it’s not clear whether the exercises themselves are the key, or whether just taking an occasional break makes us happier. The increase in positive mood also appears to be a short-term boost, rather than a long-term change in personality, outlook, or mood.

Happiness itself can be hard to measure. A 2002 study, “Sources of Bias in Memory for Emotions,” found that our emotional memory of past events is heavily influenced by our mood at the time of recall. Winning that award three months ago made you feel over-the-moon, but if you’re feeling sad or anxious at the time you’re asked to recall it, you’re more likely to describe your emotions as less positive than they actually felt at the time. The reverse is also true. If asked on a particularly happy day to recall a break-up that made you feel lonely and angry, you’re more likely to remember your feelings as more positive than they really were back then.

There’s also the risk, as with any self-help, that people with mental illnesses will attempt to use these kinds of apps to the exclusion of seeking real treatment. For legal reasons, self-improvement apps are not allowed to bill themselves as therapy—but the line can get pretty thin when a program promises to reduce your anxiety, elevate your mood, or alleviate your insomnia. With many self-improvement apps eagerly advertising their research-based bona fides, the line can get even thinner.

On the other hand, these apps can be a fun way to get in the habit of taking a few moments every day to center yourself and relax. Answering questions about what makes you happy can give you insight about yourself and, personally, as the parent of two athletes myself, I found iPeak Coach’s tips—which are more like full-length essays or podcasts—pretty helpful.

So whether self-improvement apps work is probably based a lot on what you expect to get out of them. Happiness, after all, is in the journey, not the destination.



Originally from Minneapolis, JC Passolt has owned an independent computer and cell phone sales andrepair business in Duluth since 1985.

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