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Using Smartphones to Foster Emotional Well-Being

This article was based on the TED@Intel Talk, “The New Sharing of Emotions,” by Margaret Morris:


The Mood Phone

At the core of therapy is a close emotional bond.  Feelings are transferred onto therapists, analyzed, and worked through in ways that lead to insights and, more importantly, the ability to change the way we relate to other people. It’s been thought that for this bond to grow and be safe it needs to be apart from daily life and apart from your other relationships.

As Margaret Morris thought about how to bring that idea into daily life, she thought about a different trusted relationship–the one we have with our phones.  She worked with engineers and designers at Intel to create what they called a “mood phone.” It was like having a psychoanalyst in your pocket.


communication technology mobile phone high tech concept. Happy man using texting on smartphone social media application icons flying out of cellphone isolated grey wall background. 4g data plan


Creating Self-Awareness

The idea was to encapsulate the expertise of the therapist and that bond in the phone that people already trusted so much. This device was linked with sensors and a wireless ECG to detect heart rate variability.  It could determine when you were stressed and alerted the user to those signs. It cultivated emotional self-awareness by having people mood-map throughout the day. This prompted people to do simple things like breathing. It also made people question their interpretations of things in a process called cognitive reappraisal.


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As people used this mood phone, the researchers found that they were really hungry for solutions that they could apply in daily life to help with relationships at work, with spouses, and with kids. They made use of this in very creative ways. One man noticed through the mood mapping that his moods dropped dramatically at the end of every day and stayed that way. This was when he’d rush home from work, his wife would rush out, and the dogs and kids needed him. He realised by seeing this pattern that he could handle this differently. He did an experiment, and he started timing the prompts on the phone during this transition from home to work. This helped him because he started seeing it as a challenge rather than seeing himself as a victim of an unchangeable situation. He also started feeling better about his marriage.


Privacy Versus Sharing

At the end of the study, Morris expected the participants to bring up serious questions about privacy. What they found was that this was really not an issue. What the man brought up was something very different.  He said that if his wife had a mood phone too, and the two phones could talk to each other, it would enable them to have serious conversations without arguments. There were many variants on this idea. People actually wanted to share their private and stigmatising moments.  What they wanted above all else was connectedness.

Morris realised that the magic would not be encapsulated in one trusted relationship with an expert in a device. Instead, the device should be a trusted portal, one that cultivates safe bonds with other people and enables sharing and growth.


Making Social Media More Social

This led to a project with the immersive computing lab at Intel.  Researchers set up their study at creative events such as large art, music, and technology festivals around the world. They projected pictures from the events on a wall in an attempt to make social media more social. They added an emotional layer – each picture was framed with colour, and they incorporated sounds to reflect either sentiment analysis of captions or an interface that allowed people to say how a picture made them feel.


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They found that this did work in the ways that they expected. It got the conversation beyond “like.” People talked about their feelings with friends, spouses, and strangers.  There were also unexpected ways in which people connected. A man from Paris used himself as a social screen, projecting images onto himself. He had someone take a picture of him and uploaded that picture onto the wall, marking himself as connected.


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Even more striking, was the way the people in this very social setting worked through complex emotions. At a San Paulo event, a woman uploaded a picture of a skeleton, and she wrote on it, “death, miserable” to describe a recent breakup. Because of the caption, the system classified it as sad, but she said that she was actually excited. She conveyed to the people around her and to her followers online that she experienced loss authentically, but she was not drowning in it.  


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Connecting Through Technology

It is through these kinds of experiments that we learn how people want to connect and how technology can promote well-being. Morris wants to continue exploring how people can get advice on the spot, not just from professionals but from friends, from their network, and from the crowd.  Someone who would never go to therapy might reach out for coping strategies from their peers.

We’re at this moment where we can enable all kinds of sharing by bringing together very intimate technologies, like sensors, with massive ones, like the cloud. As we do this, we have to rethink what the trusted alliance is as we witness new kinds of breakthrough moments to bring our approaches about emotional well-being into the 21st century.


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