Unhappy? There’s an App for That. Tracking Well-Being through the Quantified Self

Author(s): Belli, Jill


This article analyses happiness apps, a subset of quantified self (QS) applications focused on tracking and improving user subjective well-being or happiness. I examine these apps, the data they track, and the interventions they propose to explore the social, political, and ethical implications of QS practices associated with happiness apps. Despite their focus on science, data, and quantification, happiness apps are ideologically inflected, mediated through the influential research, rhetoric, and pedagogy of positive psychology. Positive psychology as the “science of happiness” applies research in order to maximise well-being globally, and it increasingly leverages technology for this goal. Through a close reading of the claims and functions of these happiness apps, I highlight their assumptions about the happy individual and good society. Happiness apps do not assess emotions objectively via user data; instead, they filter user emotions through positive psychology’s theories of happiness that inform these apps’ conceptions and standards of well-being. This article argues that happiness apps may function conservatively, teaching users to pursue happiness and the good life without recognizing that understandings of happy and good are not universal but inextricably bound to particular ideological assumptions, cultural contexts, and interpretations of what is positive, valuable, and desirable. The practice of tracking and operationalising user data via a happiness app is a complex, mediated practice. The data are mediated by the particular tool as well as users’ individual understandings of and aspirations for happiness, which in turn are mediated by the rhetoric, ideology, and pedagogy of positive psychology. This triple mediation demonstrates that the QS is not neutral but instead embedded within social, cultural, economic, political, and ethical commitments.

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Belli, Jill: Unhappy? There’s an App for That. Tracking Well-Being through the Quantified Self. In: Digital Culture & Society, Jg. 2 (2016), Nr. 1, S. 89-103. DOI: 10.25969/mediarep/855.
 author = {Belli, Jill},
 title = {Unhappy? There’s an App for That. Tracking Well-Being through the Quantified Self},
 year = 2016,
 doi = {10.25969/mediarep/855},
 volume = 2,
 address = {Bielefeld},
 journal = {Digital Culture & Society},
 number = 1,
 pages = {89--103},
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