Hacking happiness

Is it possible to ‘hack’ your own happiness? Helen Parnham investigates how emerging technologies can improve wellbeing

Over 200 people stepped out of the rain and into the welcoming glow of LSO St Luke’s in London on 14 November to attend Hacking Happiness, an international summit on human potential, performance and wellbeing.

The conference was set up by German entrepreneur and business adviser Sebastian Nienaber, responding to a cultural shift he’d noticed among tech and start-up communities; a growing interest in how we function mentally and emotionally – and a desire to find ways to ‘hack’ into increased levels of wellbeing.

With international speakers from a range of sectors and a buzzing audience of keen, tech-savvy self-improvers, discussions on the day began with mindfulness and took in resilience, diet, digital detoxing and techniques for building better habits.

Dr David Cox, chief medical officer at meditation app Headspace, kicked off proceedings by explaining the benefits of meditation, especially for those working within a competitive business environment. “People who do meditation practice are better able to focus, make connections and come up with good ideas,” he claimed.

But can you really learn an ancient meditation practice through a mobile phone app – and shouldn’t we be spending more time away from our phones? Dr Cox responded pragmatically, arguing that we now live in a world where people are very used to turning to their phones apps for help with life’s problems, and that the need for meditation in our stressed-out population is so strong that it makes sense to bring mindfulness to the masses in an accessible form.

In the afternoon, speakers focused on what most of us find to be the greatest challenge: not learning new techniques to improve our lives, but actually practising them and replacing current habits with new ones.

Darya Rose, a neuroscientist and dietician, explained that diets generally fail because people rely on willpower to follow them. Given that many different decisions and events during the course of a day can deplete willpower, it is now widely recognised as a limited and unreliable resource. Rose believes that once people develop good food habits in their lives they no longer need to rely on willpower to make the right choices, and are far more likely to succeed.

A talk on building good habits by US weightlifter James Clear included his ideas for using behavioural science to improve performance. He shared the importance of utilising the surrounding environment to promote good behaviours, such as removing a TV from the centre of a living room if you are trying to watch it less, or investing in an alarm clock instead of your mobile if you want to avoid reading emails on your phone in the morning.

A summit like this seems to reflect the fact that happiness and wellbeing have moved centre-stage. Henry Stewart, business thinker and founder of Happy Ltd, pointed out that the big names in the tech industry are now keenly aware of the correlation between happiness and productivity, and like Google, are vying with each other to be “the best place in the world to work”.

Mark Williamson of the Action for Happiness campaign added to the economic rationale for happiness in his talk, referring to evidence that “happy people are less likely to catch colds. They’ll enjoy higher overall levels of health and are more productive.”

Some attendees wondered whether it was a luxury – or even selfish – to focus on one’s happiness. Apparently not. According to Headspace’s research, while people might try meditation for personal gains (stress relief, better focus) in reality the benefits they are likely to experience will extend beyond the individual to create a kinder, happier society. The findings claim that “in controlled experiments, people who meditate are also able to carry out more acts of compassion. Spontaneously, without prompting.”

It was a slick and engaging event, packed with ideas, research and tips to take away. Talks varied considerably but were all unified on one key message: nothing is set in stone, and we can all change our habits to improve our lives, and by being happier ourselves, the lives of those around us.