While there is little doubt that our lives are becoming increasingly digital, whether this change is for better or worse is far from settled. Numerous efforts are devoted to acknowledging the risks of digital technologies, but could technology be used to improve people’s wellbeing?
In the 2022 Harvard Business Review article “Using Technology to Make Work More Human,” Allison Fine and Beth Kanter share how the next wave of digital tech or “smart technology” has the potential and power to rehumanize work. They share how rather than doing the same work faster, and with fewer people, smart tech creates an opportunity to redesign jobs and re-engineer workflows to enable people to focus on the parts of work that humans are particularly well-suited for, such as relationship building, intuitive decision making, empathy, and problem-solving.
Another example of technology for the betterment of humans is positive technology which has gained momentum among consumers and organizations to support enhancing human happiness and psychological wellbeing. Positive technology is defined as the scientific and applied approach to using technology to improve the quality of the human experience. The underpinnings derive from positive psychology, which is the scientific study of positive human functioning and flourishing on multiple levels, including biological, personal, relational, institutional, cultural, and global dimensions of life.
Integrating Technology in Positive Psychology Practice is a collection of essays on the use of technology to enhance personal experience. It challenges common assumptions about technology by looking at its potential to support human growth and flourishing by harnessing its ability to create goal-oriented systems, augment interactive experiences, and simulate physical presence. This type of positive computing emphasizes designing with wellbeing in mind and supporting human potential. The user experience is critical and must focus on multi-dimensional, interpretive, and situational aspects. This focus allows the technology to go beyond cognition to include emotions, values, culture, and experience.
A virtual world could be considered positive technology if utilized to foster positive emotions, promote engagement in empowering activities, and support connectedness between individuals, groups, and communities. The three key characteristics needed for a personal experience in the virtual world are
- Affective/emotional quality
- Connectedness quality
Together these three characteristics are key features that enable immersive technology to target different aspects of individual experience.
Imagining an Immersive Wellbeing Experience
Imagine you are on a beautiful Hawaiian Island with the seagulls flying in the clear blue sky, and the calming sounds of the ocean waves. You have just completed an assessment identifying your wellness needs, interests, barriers, and challenges to curate the sessions and modalities that fit you.
First is the hedonic level which focuses on the affective/emotional quality and concentrates on strengthening and developing positive emotional strategies in the virtual world.
- Your first session is Exposure therapy with an avatar therapist, helping with learning and practicing relaxation techniques such as positive ruminating mantras, reframing compassion meditation, and practicing positive emotions with others in the virtual world.
- Your experiencing within this relaxing environment coupled with mindfulness strategies that result in mind-body stress reduction helps you consciously pay attention to thoughts and feelings and practice being present.
- Before the session ends you also start learning about the importance of resilience and then start actively building resilience when dealing with stress, pressure, and other life challenges through avatar role-play.
Second is the Eudaimonic level which investigates how technology can be used to support individuals with engaging and self-actualizing experiences, which are crucial factors to engagement, presence, self-efficacy, and motivation.
- Your second session in the virtual world focuses on multiple social experiences, like dancing, eating, conversing, and walking with others, all of which support and improve social integration and connectedness between individuals, groups, and organizations.
- The engagement and actualization quality exist by embedding strategies into the virtual world, such as practicing getting through real-life changes in the virtual world, as well as building skills and intrinsic and extrinsic rewards to increase self-efficacy.
Third is Connectedness which focuses on social and interpersonal experiences. The four critical factors of connectedness are flow, gratitude, empathy, and altruism.
- Your third session is focused on social experiences support and improving the connectedness between individuals, groups, and organizations.
- Flow is when a person is in an activity, just like the immersion that happens in one is present in the virtual world.
- Gratitude is also a critical part of social and interpersonal skills practiced with others in the virtual world. Examples may include “play with others” or gratitude visits to the virtual world, as well as gratitude journaling within the virtual world and sharing it with others.
- Role-play is also successful in the virtual world, specifically due to the Proteus Effect (taking on the digital representation of your avatar). The participant practices the desired actions such as perspective-taking and emotion recognition such as empathy to help them build and strengthen their interpersonal skills and strategies.
- Connectedness is a feeling of belonging, and it is about partnering, trust and connectedness. A participant can learn about altruism, which promotes social connections: When we give to others, they feel closer to us, and we also feel closer to them. Pro-social games and role-playing strategies are effective and can be embedded seamlessly in the virtual world. When gamification is integrated, participants tend to pay more attention. These experiences (games) may also apply to mindfulness meditation.
Specifically, these experiences encourage users to embrace the immersive experience, pay attention, be in the present moment, and be there on purpose. In addition, being able to interact and play with other individuals simultaneously (in real-time) can improve mental health and physical movement, engagement, and, ultimately, enjoyment.
Daily life is constantly subject to the micro and macro-stressors that prevent a person from achieving a state of homeostasis. However, with consistent practice and modalities to help, many people can maintain a balanced relationship with the environment. And what if there was a place by the ocean that you could visit friends, physicians, therapists, and counselors anywhere at any time. Even under the most challenging circumstances, this “world” could help you develop, grow, and achieve increasingly intense levels of wellbeing. Perhaps the answer is yes, digital technologies be used to improve people’s wellbeing.
Villani, D., Cipresso, P., Gaggioli, A., & Riva, G. (2016)