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In January, researchers led by associate professor of psychology Robb Rutledge launched The Happiness Project, an app that will help scientists study decision-making, happiness and mental health.

Created by neuroscientists working in the Rutledge lab at Yale University and at University College London in the Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research and the Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging, the app allows users to play four different games, unlocking new levels and tracks their happiness as they continue to play.

“With this app, we’re inviting the general public to play games for science where we can see how they make decisions and how they feel about the outcomes,” Rutledge said. “We know there are certain things that affect people’s well-being and happiness, including uncertainty, rewards and learning. The data from this app will allow us to draw conclusions about how these factors are actually affecting the way people feel.”

According to Rutledge — who created his first psychology-based app, called The Great Brain Experiment, five years ago — using this developed method of collecting data comes with numerous benefits for psychological research.

One benefit is the large and diverse groups of participants that can be reached using an online platform, he said. Rather than confining the participant pool to a specific demographic or location, this app can be played by people of all ages, education levels and cultural backgrounds who may not otherwise participate in psychological studies. Rutledge stressed the importance of using diverse subjects to draw conclusions about human behavior — something that has long been an issue in the field.

Another benefit is that data can be collected easily throughout various times of the day, since participants do not need to travel or go through long processes to answer questions, as they would with research conducted in a more traditional lab environment, according to Rutledge. Getting data on small decisions made throughout the day and how they affect people’s moods will allow researchers to make key insights into human behavior.

“There’s lots of interest in learning more about the kinds of behaviors that lead to improved well-being and happiness,” Laurie Santos, professor of psychology who taught the popular class “Psychology and the Good Life,” wrote in an email to the News. “The problem is that we make lots of small decisions all the time, and so it’s hard to know how all these individual choices integrate to form our overall well-being. This new app can help us get some important clues to this question as it will allow the Rutledge lab to test how decisions affect well-being in a very large number of subjects.”

In the app, participants can choose from four games, ranging from catching fish to digging for treasure. The games each try to target different underlying psychological concepts, such as risk versus reward. 

Liam Mason, lecturer in clinical psychology at University College London, led the team that developed a game which investigates how people determine good versus bad courses of action based on trial and error. According to Mason, the game focuses on how people’s mood fluctuates based on varying levels of success, and how these moods can affect their behavior.

“There’s a two-way street between happiness and experiences in the world,” Mason said. “Good things not only make us feel happier, but at times when we feel happier, we can perceive the world around us in a different way. We are more inclined to view things in a positive light, to take more risks than usual, so we’re trying to look at that.”

Ultimately, Rutledge and his team hope to learn more about mental health, an especially relevant topic given the COVID-19 pandemic. As participants play games in the app, they are also presented with questions from a range of mental health topics, including how much they sleep and if they have been feeling low recently, according to Rutledge.

By comparing the answers from people who experience symptoms of depression to those who do not, Rutledge and his team can better understand what contributes to these mental health issues.

“A lot of people are feeling more anxious and have lower moods this year because it’s a very stressful time,” Rutledge said. “While some people have really been suffering, others have been quite resilient. So we’d like to study what factors affect happiness and mental health, and hopefully better understand how to address these issues.”

Despite the anonymous nature of the app and the lack of in-person contact, Rutledge and his team found the data to look very similar to lab data, confirming that smartphone apps can be used to test psychological hypotheses.

Claire Gillan, associate professor of psychology at Trinity College Dublin and creator of the smartphone app Neureka — another scientific app that studies participants while they play games on it — is also optimistic about the great possibilities afforded to scientists by data gathered online and through smartphones.

“With online data, it’s a whole different planet,” Gillan said. “There are certainly challenges that come with not being able to control the environment. But we’ve been able to put quality checks in place and have gotten data that is consistent with information gathered in person. Overall, the online platform has greatly expanded the representation of participants and also the amount of data we can get from one person. It’s not just a step up from in-person research, it’s an entirely different planet.”

In the future, Rutledge and his team hope to expand the app, adding new features and translating it into different languages, as it is currently only available in English.

Currently available worldwide, The Happiness Project can be downloaded for free in the App Store and Google Play.

Veronica Lee | veronica.lee@yale.edu