Pulse: Chatter: Joy To The World

One sunny Penn grad is gonna cheer you up

Can a website make you happier?


Okay, if you’re a real Philadelphian, you’re probably enjoying a cynical snicker right now. “If I tell people in Philadelphia I work for Happier.com, they give me a quizzical look and slowly move away from me,” laughs Andrew Rosenthal, a 26-year-old Penn grad. But Rosenthal, who’s from Portland, Oregon, and therefore much less grouchy than the rest of us, wants us hard-edged East Coasters to believe in the pursuit of happiness — even if every fiber of our Eagles-singed, corruption-tainted DNA says it’s a sucker’s bet.

Rosenthal is co-founder and vice president of Happier.com, a new website based on the groundbreaking work of renowned Penn psychologist Martin Seligman and others in the burgeoning field of positive psychology. Launched in September, the site acts, as Rosenthal puts it, like a “personal trainer for happiness,” guiding users (who each pay a $5-per-month subscription fee, expected to go to $10 shortly) through a series of tests and exercises empirically proven to pump up one’s satisfaction with life. Want to reduce your anxiety and depression levels? Try “Three Good Things,” a daily exercise in which you write down what went well for you that day. Looking to boost your relationships? Get pointers from the “Active and Constructive Responding” exercise. Just want a baseline measure of how crappy (or not) your woebegone (or not) existence is? Fill out the 24-question “Authentic Happiness Index.”

Happier.com’s roots hark back to Rosenthal’s days at Penn, when he helped Seligman with his research. While positive psychology — which focuses not on mental illness, but on making everyday life more fulfilling — has received much attention within mental health circles over the past decade, Rosenthal and site co-founder Doug Hensch (another Penn grad) saw that many ideas weren’t reaching a large audience. “We saw a business opportunity in what science was doing too slowly,” says Rosenthal. After they raised hundreds of thousands in seed money for the project — and signed Seligman on as a consultant — Happier.com was born.

Though its subject matter is as old as the ancient Greeks, the site is using 21st-century marketing initiatives to get on the radar of potential users (described by Rosenthal as “the kind of women who watch the Today show”). For instance, type “job loss” or “holiday stress” into Google, or even start bitching about your relationship while using your Gmail account, and you just might see a Happier.com ad appear on your screen. And apparently word is getting out: Through December, nearly 50,000 registered users had signed up, including one guy Rosenthal says has filled out “Three Good Things” a staggering 1,600 times. (Clearly not a Philadelphian.)

But can such cyber exercises truly lead to contentment and inner peace? Rosenthal says yes, though he notes it’s a little more complicated than buying vintage Hummels on eBay: “It’s not like you log on to Happier.com, fall asleep on your keyboard, and wake up happier. There’s work involved.”
See, Philadelphia? We knew it. There’s always a freakin’ catch.