The (Digital) Pursuit of Happiness? New App Aims to Please, Literally

NEW YORK -- Last Friday, hula hoops, Cholula hot sauce, a rescue kitten named Montana and "cake at work" were making people happy. On East 10th Street, an email from an old friend was making one young woman happy, while over on Astor Place, someone else was happy about the David Barton gym. This data -- what was making people happy, and when and where -- was all to be found on a new iPhone application launched last week called, (appropriately), “Hapify.”

Hapify is the first product from Red Scout Ventures, a business incubator/venture firm launched by branding and marketing agency Red Scout -- owned by industry powerhouse MDC Partners, the world's 10th largest advertising holding company. The goal, according to the Hapify website, is to allow users to “really savor the things that make you feel good by building a personal profile to help learn about your own happiness.”

Perhaps it says something about the 21st century that we must now rely on technology to remind us when we’re happy, or perhaps it says something about us that technology is even able to do so. Jonah Disend, Red Scout’s founder, contends, “The more digital we’ve become, we have fewer close friends and are more disconnected from our emotions. That’s the downside of social networking -- it’s not actually making us happy. Kids these days have 2,000 virtual friends, but they actually quantitatively have fewer friends than teenagers did ten years ago.”

When creating Hapify, Disend says he thought, “What if we could actually use technology and bring in that incredible emotional connection and make people happier?”

Where Facebook allows friends to “like” or comment on each others’ posts about their babies and newly refinished decks -- a sort of virtual diary with a digital Greek chorus -- Hapify exists specifically to chronicle those things which make us happy. The application, available for free on iTunes, asks users to choose from one of two options: “I’m Happy” and “Make Me Happy.”

Choose the “I’m Happy” button and you can enter a photo, description or location that made you happy -- say, for example, an egg sandwich from the local deli, or the deli itself. Once you “Hapify” it, it becomes part of a happiness feed, which you can share with everyone on the network, share with only friends or keep to yourself.

The ambitious endgame, according to its creators, is to develop a sort of geography of happiness that can quantitatively determine what the happiest hour is, the happiest street or the happiest deli, in any particular city, state or country in the world. So far, Hapify's community -- approximately people 1,500 thus far -- has determined the Flatiron District to be the epicenter of happiness in New York City and 8 p.m. to be the happiest time of the day.

But while the pursuit of happiness is a noble endeavor, Red Scout is not simply in the business of creating good things for goodness’ sake. Disend explains the business model: “There’s a huge platform for brands -- places, tourist destinations, restaurants -- to try to become the ‘happy location.’”

He adds, “Who doesn’t want to go where the people they admire are most happy? Or buy the things that make the people they admire the most happy? That was always the underlying theme [in Hapify]: You look towards the people that are happy, that you respect, and you want to buy into that lifestyle. Now you have access to it.”

The application exists dually to assist people who want to make each other happy by sending out virtual or actual gifts, and morale-boosting communiques. According to Disend, this is another way in which the application can be monetized: Through partnerships with brands (and Red Scout clients) like Domino's, users can make their friends happy by, say, sending them a pizza if they’re feeling blue.

For those whose tastes run more niche than Honolulu Hawaiian pizza, Roo Rogers, Red Scout Ventures’ president, envisions a time when local restaurants and brands -- if “hapified” enough -- will be able to offer vouchers on Hapify. “There’s no reason [this] shouldn’t go hyper-local or hyper-global,” he says. “There’s no barrier to either. And there’s monetization at both. And in fact, that’s what your hope is. Your hope is, Okay sure, Pepsi and Coke want to participate -- great. But you also hope for the local taco stand.”

While Hapify shares some certain crowd-sourced DNA with Yelp and Groupon, a question remains as to whether monetizing an emotional index somehow compromises it -- whether adding commerce into a (so far) random and unadulterated list of happiness stimulators will somehow force the conversation or confuse it.

There’s also the concern as to whether happiness can really be influenced by technology -- or commerce -- at all.

Nicholas Christakis, a professor of Medical Sociology at Harvard Medical School and the co-author of “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives,” questions the premise that the 21st century -- and social networks -- have made us unhappier, or somehow diminished our relationships. “There’s no evidence to suggest that we have fewer friends than we did before,” he says. “The idea that somehow technology has changed relationships is false.”

Christakis agrees that certain technology might be able to bring people “perhaps differently together or more quickly together, or more often together.” But while sending a friend a post-breakup pizza or announcing to one’s network that you’re happiest when eating egg sandwiches might give your buddies more insight into you as a friend, Christakis proposes that it won’t fundamentally alter the friendship itself.

“I’m not saying that communication is irrelevant to having and maintaining friendships,” he says, “but the invention of new technology is not leading to wholesale new forms of relationships.”

Then again, if Hapify does not fundamentally alter the course of human relationships, perhaps that’s not the end of the world -- or even the point. Happiness, is after all, very personal, and to a certain degree, just focusing on the emotion -- taking note of the times and places and people that make us happiest -- may be the reward in and of itself. These days, the roses are increasingly digital, and Hapify might be one tool that compels us to stop and smell them.

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