Psychology Magazine

Practicing Gratitude, Kindness, and Compassion - Can Our I-devices Help?

By Deric Bownds @DericBownds
My Apple Watch occasionally, and unexpectedly, prompts me to stop and breathe (does it not like the pulse that it is measuring?). Noticing whether you are holding your breath or breathing can be very useful (The title of one my web lectures is “Are you holding your breath? - Structures of arousal and calm). My Univ. of Wisconsin colleague Richard Davidson writes a brief piece suggesting that this sort of prompting might be carried a bit further, to enhance other beneficial behaviors, suggesting that As technology permeates our lives, it should be designed to boost our kindness, empathy, and happiness.
...tech giants Apple and Google recently announced new software improvements to empower iPhone and Android smartphone users to be more aware and potentially limit smartphone use. I certainly think it’s a necessary step in the right direction. But is it enough? I see this as one of the first admissions by these companies that their technologies have powerful effects on us as humans—effects we have been discovering as we all participate in this grand experiment that none of us signed up for.
This admission by the technology leaders opens the door to a huge opportunity to start designing the interactions and the actual contents of what we consume to prioritize the well-being of users. For instance, what if artificial intelligence used in virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa were designed to detect variations in the tone of voice to determine when someone was struggling with loneliness or depression and to intervene by providing a simple mental exercise to cultivate well-being? Or a mental health resource? This is one idea tech leaders are exploring more seriously, and for good reason.
In our lab at UW–Madison, we’re looking to make video game play a prosocial and entertaining experience for kids. In collaboration with video games experts, our lab created a research video game to train empathy in kids, which has shown potential in changing circuits of the brain that underlie empathy in some middle schoolers.
We’re exploring similar programs in adults that go above and beyond meditation apps for people to participate in bite-sized mental training practices that help them connect with others, as well as deepen their attention and resilience. What if your next smartphone notification were a prompt to reflect on what you’re grateful for or a challenge to take a break from your device and notice the natural environment? We know that activities like cultivating gratitude and spending time in nature or connecting with loved ones can have therapeutic effects. There’s nothing stopping us from integrating these reminders into our digital lives.
Ultimately, I think it will take soul-searching from companies and consumers to get us closer to technologies that truly help and don’t hinder the nurturing of user well-being.
We have a moral obligation to take what we know about the human mind and harness it in this ever-changing digital frontier to promote well-being. I think we can succeed if we can deliberately design our systems to nurture the basic goodness of people. This is a vision in which human flourishing would be supported, rather than diminished, by the rapidly evolving technology that is shaping our minds.

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