The Power of the Positive

Using technology to improve lives—and media psychology to understand how Jerri Lynn Hogg

From seniors and those living with disabilities, to all of us seeking optimum health and well-being, technology promises better living. There are a lot of great technological ideas designed to make our lives easier and address hard problems. We are texting, emailing and posting to social media more than ever. Adults spend nearly half of their day interacting with media,1 a full 78 percent of teens check their devices at least hourly,2 and U.S. children younger than 8 spend 48 minutes a day on average on a mobile device.3 In 2015, more than 2 billion people used social media networking sites and applications.4 This represents considerable engagement with digital technology.

By 2025, it is estimated that immersive reality (virtual, augmented and mixed reality) in health care will reach $5.1 billion. In 2017, health care was considered the second strongest vertical in terms funding in Europe. Technology can be used to assist and empower patients, provide access to helpful treatments and offer better diagnostics. We can change the face of health care.

Pew Internet researchers state: “Digital life will continue to expand people’s boundaries and opportunities in the coming decade and that the world to come will produce more help than harm in people’s lives. Still, nearly a third think that digital life will be mostly harmful to people’s health, mental fitness and happiness.”5

As a media psychologist, I study how media and technology influence our lives. Currently, I am working on research to provide scientific outcomes as well as positive psychological benefits of technologies to further garner support from the medical community, funding sources and insurance companies. Technology has the potential to generate and support positive well-being. I use the lens of media and positive psychology to inform my research. I review the science underlying emerging technologies for improving mental and physical health, and I consider some of the current implementations already affecting our lives.

Positive Psychology and Positive Health

Researchers describe positive psychology as “the study of what is ‘right’ about people—their positive attributes, psychological assets and strengths.”6 Its goal is to identify factors that help individuals grow, adapt and thrive in society. By helping individuals thrive, the communities they comprise also grow stronger and healthier.

The positive psychology movement originated in the late 20th century under the guidance of psychologist Martin Seligman and others. In 2000, Seligman and fellow psychologist Christopher Peterson conducted a global study on what is best about being human. The results of the study generated the VIA Institute on Character Classification of Character Strengths. This list includes 24 specific identifications of strengths,7 including categories such as creativity, honesty, courage, love and fairness.

Character strengths are signature strengths that identify who we are and how we lead and/or approach a situation. So, for example, I have taken the VIA Survey test multiple times. Each time, my results showed curiosity at the top of my profile. At first, I was surprised by—and even disagreed with—the results. I didn’t think of myself as a curious person—or at least I didn’t think it was one of the primary traits I display with my behavior. Over the next week, I noticed how many times I started a sentence with “I’m curious…” Then I thought about my career as a researcher and a media psychologist and realized I am, in fact, curiosity driven, always interested, exploring and wanting to know more.

Dr. Ryan Niemiec, director of VIA education, and Alina Yarova, vice president of the positive health and wellness division of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA), reviewed research with application of character strengths and health in their Spring 2018 research newsletter.8 Some examples include:

  • Gratitude has been linked with increased positive mood, life satisfaction, vitality, optimism and spirituality, and decreased depression and envy.9
  • Hope was a significant predictor of medication adherence among asthma patients aged 8 to 12 years.10
  • While telomere length was negatively associated with chronological age, a belief in personal justice mediated such an effect for older subjects, suggesting perceptions of justice/injustice could be protective from the negative health effects of race-based social adversity.11
  • All character strengths except humility and spirituality were associated with multiple health behaviors, including substance avoidance, cardio-respiratory fitness and overall perceived health.12

VIA character strengths have been empirically validated and used to generate well-being. Multiple experiments and longitudinal studies have shown that positive emotions provide benefits in work, family life and financial status.13 These findings support the notion that building on psychological strengths individuals already possess can increase personal resiliency and contribute to mental and somatic health for individuals and communities. By knowing your character strengths, you can better identify how to approach and manage problems, reduce stress, strengthen relationships and increase life satisfaction in general.

This insight follows another contribution from Seligman. In 2008, he proposed the creation of a new academic discipline he named “positive health.” Seligman’s positive health philosophy defined health as “a state beyond the mere absence of disease.”14 Unlike the medical model—where the approach is to identify disease and problems and try to fix them—the positive psychology approach falls more along the lines of what is working and how we can lead with, design for or model to the strengths. It is an empowered approach that allows for bringing out the best. Once developed, Seligman predicted, positive health measures could be used to estimate longevity, medical treatment costs and prognosis, mental health, and quality-adjusted life years and disability- adjusted life years.

icon As many as 1,000 smartphone “biomarkers” for depression, such as text typing speed and word choice, may exist.

Applying Positive Psychology to Improve Health Outcomes

The research cited in this article, as well as many other studies, has demonstrated the benefits of nurturing psychological resources such as resiliency, optimism and gratitude in improving mental health. They have also been found to increase the benefit of public health interventions.15 Many of these include technology-based interventions designed to identify, prevent and alleviate negative outcomes of mental health challenges. Names such as “positive computing” and “positive technology” describe initiatives to promote mental health and well-being by applying positive psychology to human–computer interactions. Sarah Diefenbach, a professor for market and consumer psychology at the Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich in Germany, writes that “‘positive technologies’ are designed to manipulate the quality of experience through its structuring, augmentation and/or replacement, with the goal of increasing wellness, and generating strengths and resilience in individuals, organizations and society,” while positive computing aims to “study and [aid in the] development of technologies designed to support well-being, wisdom and human potential.”16

Based on these findings, an interdisciplinary community including psychologists, technologists, user interface designers, game makers and others have begun developing ways to use computer-based algorithms and interactive technologies to “support well-being and human flourishing.”17 Current examples include ubiquitous cellphone and smartwatch pedometers and fitness trackers, which leverage the individual’s desire for self-efficacy, reminding users to exercise, relax, drink water or perform other positive activities.

Choosing Happiness

“You’re always so happy, Olga.” I get a chuckle when someone tells me that. I believe I am a generally happy person and am glad I come across that way to others. Some who make that observation about me or about others like me think that happy people are just “born” that way. They think we’ve had no misery, no hardships in life, and that we are always “winning” or “lucky” …


Emerging Technologies for Positive Psychology and Health

Equally intriguing but perhaps less obvious applications are emerging from the computational field of big data. Algorithm-based processing models increasingly are able to scour large data sets, including social media posts, to identify opportunities for mental health interventions.18 One well-intentioned but potentially clumsy example gained attention in the U.S. news media recently: Facebook scrubbed user posts for indicators of suicidal ideation. Unfortunately, news reports claimed Facebook’s technology resulted in many false alarms and too-late alerts.19 Nonetheless, other recent news stories reported on research at the University of Chicago that was working to predict suicide risk based on indicators as subtle as text typing speed and word choice. Researchers from the National Institute of Mental Health estimate that “as many as 1,000 smartphone ‘biomarkers’ for depression” may exist.20

As technology matures, big data algorithms are likely to learn to detect signs of impending or emerging mental health conditions as accurately as Google’s present search engine technology is able to detect influenza hotspots based on the location of users seeking information about symptoms and treatment. In mental health, this information could be used to identify opportunities for public health or policy interventions, and then results can be measured. Additionally, these technologies promise even greater granularity, identifying individual sufferers and triggering interventions designed to mitigate conditions such as manic episodes or depressive relapse. Pilot studies suggest interventions such as this can provide moderate benefits to sufferers.21 These outcomes are likely to improve as technologies mature, ultimately improving community well-being by decreasing the number and severity of depressive conditions in the population.

Perhaps the most powerful future technology for positive health promotion is already well-known. The worlds of computer-based gaming, scientific research and military training have all invested heavily in the hardware and software that support virtual reality (VR), defined as using imagery, sounds and even physical sensations such as motion and vibration to create an artificial environment in which users can interact with others or imaginary objects. Good examples include slaying trolls and zombies in electronic games or practicing combat missions in sophisticated flight simulators. Even using two-dimensional screens in goggles or headsets, this technology has demonstrated the ability to evoke the same emotional responses as in real life.

Researchers note that VR environments are able to induce positive emotions such as awe using scenarios that cause affirmative visceral responses in participants.22 Anxiety and stress reduction VR applications are available with measurable positive results. Research suggests this is based in VR’s ability to let users inhabit a shared virtual space,23 resulting in communications and interactions that are closer to “face-to-face” interactions than is possible with thinner media such as texting, phones and even video conferencing. VR can also “transport” participants to comforting environments and “democratize” other experiences such as visiting foreign lands, ascending unconquerable mountain peaks and even traveling in space.

Lingering Questions in Positive Health

There are a lot of great technology ideas designed to make our lives easier and address difficult problems. Now that technology is woven into the fabric of our everyday lives, two important questions remain. The first is, how can we best use these technologies to live a good life? The second question is, how can we safely use technology to assist in promoting well-being while not diminishing the quality of our lives? This is particularly poignant as we live in an ever more technology-driven world.

The Actuarial Connection

Dr. Laura Kubzansky of the Harvard School of Public Health is studying “happiness” as a deterrent to and aid for the healthful management of diseases such as strokes, heart attacks, diabetes and depression. The four attributes of happiness she has identified are emotional vitality, optimism, supportive networks and self-regulation.

The answer to these questions may be found through the lens of positive psychology itself. Some criteria to keep in mind when determining the value, utility and benefit of current and emerging technologies—that is, deciding whether to “trust” them—include:

  • Does the technology empower the user?
  • Can it assist in providing a voice to the consumer (act as an advocate)?
  • Can the user feel a sense of agency by using the technology?

As with any emerging technology, computer-based positive psychology and positive health solutions demand careful study as they are introduced and adopted. But unlike many technology products, these new systems and applications provide so much potential for improving mental and physical health among individuals and communities. Technology will continue to grow and, in the process, create efficiencies, make our lives easier and make possible what we once thought was impossible.

How might you promote the positive features of human psychology that can be leveraged or amplified using media and technology? Find your signature strengths and take the 10-minute survey for free at

Jerri Lynn Hogg, Ph.D., is director, Media Psychology Program, Fielding Graduate University, 2015 President, APA Division 46, Society for Media Psychology and Technology.

Copyright © 2019 by the Society of Actuaries, Chicago, Illinois.