Journal of Happiness Studies

, Volume 17, Issue 1, pp 163–185 | Cite as

Putting the ‘app’ in Happiness: A Randomised Controlled Trial of a Smartphone-Based Mindfulness Intervention to Enhance Wellbeing

  • Annika HowellsEmail author
  • Itai Ivtzan
  • Francisco Jose Eiroa-Orosa
Research Paper


Smartphones are revolutionizing approaches to wellbeing investment. Those seeking greater happiness can engage with thousands of downloadable self-help applications instantly, yet their effectiveness remains largely unknown. This investigation explored the viability of delivering a positive psychological intervention in application format to authentic happiness seekers. A smartphone-based randomized-controlled trial was conducted with a diverse self-selecting pool, randomly assigned to engage with an empirically supported mindfulness intervention (n = 57) or a control intervention (n = 64) for 10 days. The study explored smartphone methodology, the importance of empirically based content for wellbeing enhancement and the extent to which user experience related to wellbeing gains. Results of repeated measures ANOVAs showed statistically significant increases in positive affect with a medium effect size and reduced depressive symptoms with a small effect size, although no statistically significant differences in satisfaction with life, flourishing or negative affect were found. No statistically significant gains were observed in the control condition. Ratings of task enjoyment were positively correlated (Pearson’s r) with positive affect increase. Findings support the viability of smartphone-based interventions to significantly enhance elements of wellbeing, underscoring the importance of application content and the role of person-activity fit. This investigation presents implications for happiness seeking strategies in the real world whilst showcasing a dynamic method of intervention delivery that can benefit future research and practice. If the greatest mission of positive psychology is to enhance global flourishing, the potential of smartphone-based interventions may play a vital role.


Happiness Mindfulness Wellbeing Positive psychological intervention Randomized controlled trial Smartphone application 



The authors would like to thank their colleagues, friends and family for their valuable support, guidance, and feedback throughout the project. Special thanks also to Dr Timothy Sharp at The Happiness Institute and Rachel Green at The Emotional Intelligence Institute for their support in recruiting participants, to Headspace for their agreed usage of their smartphone application, and to all the Happiness Seekers who volunteered their time and energy to take part.


  1. Baer, R. A. (2003). Mindfulness training as a clinical intervention: A conceptual and empirical review. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10, 125–143.Google Scholar
  2. Baer, R. A., Lykins, E. L. B., & Peters, J. R. (2012). Mindfulness and self-compassion as predictors of psychological wellbeing in long-term meditators and matched nonmeditators. Journal of Positive Psychology, 7(3), 230–238.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bergsma, A. (2008). Do self-help books help? Journal of Happiness Studies, 9, 341–360.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Boehm, J. K., Lyubomirsky, S., & Sheldon, K. M. (2011). A longitudinal experimental study comparing the effectiveness of happiness-enhancing strategies in Anglo Americans and Asian Americans. Cognition and Emotion, 25, 1152–1167.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bolier, L., Haverman, M., Westerhof, G. J., Riper, H., Smit, F., & Bohlmeijer, E. (2013). Positive psychology interventions: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled studies. BMC Public Health, 13, 119.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Boulos, M. N. K., Wheeler, S., Tavares, C., & Jones, R. (2011). How smartphones are changing the face of mobile and participatory healthcare: An overview, with example from eCAALYX. BioMedical Engineering OnLine, 10, 24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Brown, K. W., Ryan, R. M., & Creswell, J. D. (2007). Mindfulness: Theoretical foundations and evidence for its salutary effects. Psychological Inquiry, 18, 211–237.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Busis, N. (2010). Mobile phones to improve the practice of neurology. Neurologic Clinics, 28(2), 395–410.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Carmody, J., & Baer, R. A. (2009). How long does a mindfulness-based stress reduction program need to be? A review of class contact hours and effect sizes for psychological distress. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65(6), 627–638.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cavanagh, K., Strauss, C., Cicconi, F., Griffiths, N., Wyper, A., & Jones, F. (2013). A randomised controlled trial of a brief online mindfulness-based intervention. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 51(9), 573–578.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Clough, B. A., & Casey, L. M. (2011). Technological adjuncts to enhance current psychotherapy practices: A review. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(3), 279–292.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Crawford, J. R., & Henry, J. D. (2004). The Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS): Construct validity, measurement properties and normative data in a large non-clinical sample. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 43, 245–265.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Diener, E. (2000). Subjective well-being: The science of happiness and a proposal for a national index. American Psychologist, 55, 34–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Diener, E., Emmons, R. A., Larsen, R. J., & Griffin, S. (1985). The satisfaction with life scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 49, 71–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Diener, E., Wirtz, D., Tov, W., Kim-Prieto, C., Choi, D., Oishi, S., et al. (2009). New measures of well-being: Flourishing and positive and negative feelings. Social Indicators Research, 39, 247–266.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Dillbeck, M. C., & Orme-Johnson, D. W. (1987). Physiological differences between transcendental meditation and rest. American Psychologist, 42(9), 879–881.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Dufau, S., Dunabeitia, J. A., Moret-Tatay, C., McGonigal, A., Peeters, D., et al. (2011). Smart phone, smart science: How the use of smartphones can revolutionize research in cognitive science. PLoS ONE, 6, e24974.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Dulin, P. L., Gonzalez, V. M., King, D. K., Giroux, D., & Bacon, S. (2013). Development of a smartphone-based, self-administered intervention system for alcohol use disorders. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 31(3), 321–336.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Ehrenreich, B. (2010). Smile or die: How positive thinking fooled America and the World. London: Granta.Google Scholar
  20. Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective wellbeing in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 466–475.Google Scholar
  21. Eonta, A. M., Christon, L. M., Hourigan, S. E., Ravindran, N., Vrana, S. R., & Southam-Gerow, M. A. (2011). Using everyday technology to enhance evidence-based treatments. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 42(6), 513–520.Google Scholar
  22. Ferguson, Y. L., & Sheldon, K. M. (2013). Trying to be happier really can work: Two experimental studies. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 8(1), 23–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (2008). The dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: Longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. British Medical Journal, 337, a2338.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 15(3), 218–226.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Glück, T. M., & Maercker, A. (2011). A randomized controlled pilot study of a brief web-based mindfulness training. BMC Psychiatry, 11, 175.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Happify. (2014). The science of happiness. Retrieved Sept 2, 2014 from
  27. Harnett, P. H., Whittingham, K., Puhakka, E., Hodges, J., Spry, C., & Dob, R. (2010). The short-term impact of a brief group-based mindfulness therapy program on depression and life satisfaction. Mindfulness, 1(3), 183–188.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Hart, R., Ivtzan, I., & Hart, D. (2013). Mind the gap in mindfulness research: A comparative account of the leading schools of thought. Review of General Psychology, 17(4), 453–466.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Hebden, L., Cook, A., Van der Ploeg, H. P., & Allman-Farinelli, M. (2012). Development of smartphone applications for nutrition and physical activity behavior change. JMIR Research Protocols, 1(2), e9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Intille, S. S. (2012). Emerging technology for studying daily life. In M. R. Mehl & T. S. Conner (Eds.), Handbook of research methods for studying daily life (pp. 267–282). New York, NY: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  31. Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10, 144–156.Google Scholar
  32. Keng, S., Smoski, J. J., & Robins, C. J. (2011). Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: A review of empirical studies. Clinical Psychology Review, 6(31), 1041–1056.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Khalaf (2013). Flurry five-year report: It’s an app world. The Web Just Lives in It. Retrieved August 21, 2013.
  34. Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330, 932.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 480–498.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. LaRosa, J. (2013). $10.4 Billion self-improvement market survives scandals and recession. Retrieved June 10, 2014 from
  37. Layous, K., Lee, H. C., Choi, I., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). Culture matters when designing a successful happiness-increasing activity: A comparison of the United States and South Korea. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 44, 1294–1303.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Layous, K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). The how, why what, when, and who of happiness: Mechanisms underlying the success of positive interventions. In J. Gruber & J. Moscowitz (Eds.), Positive emotion: Integrating the light sides and dark sides (pp. 473–495). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  39. Layous, K., Nelson, S. K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2012). What is the optimal way to deliver a positive activity intervention? The case of writing about one’s best possible selves. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14(2), 635–654.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Lazarus, R. (2003). Does the positive psychology movement have legs? Psychological Inquiry, 14(2), 93–109.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Luxton, D. D., McCann, R. A., Bush, N. E., Mishkind, M. C., & Reger, G. M. (2011). mHealth for mental health: Integrating smartphone technology in behavioral healthcare. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 42(6), 505–512.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Ly, K. H., Dahl, J., Carlbring, P., & Andersson, G. (2012). Development and initial evaluation of a smartphone application based on acceptance and commitment therapy. SpringerPlus, 1, 1–11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Lykken, D., & Tellegen, A. (1996). Happiness is a stochastic phenomenon. Psychological Science, 7, 186–189.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Lyubomirsky, S., Dickerhoof, R., Boehm, J. K., & Sheldon, K. M. (2011). Becoming happier takes both a will and a proper way: An experimental longitudinal intervention to boost well-being. Emotion, 11, 391–402.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005a). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803–855.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Lyubomirsky, S., & Layous, K. (2013). How do simple positive activities increase well-being? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(1), 57–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005b). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9, 111–131.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Mazzucchelli, T. G., Kane, R. T., & Rees, C. S. (2010). Behavioural activation interventions for wellbeing: A meta-analysis. Journal of Positive Psychology, 5(2), 105–121.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. McTavish, F. M., Chih, M., Shah, D., & Gustafson, D. H. (2012). How patients recovering from alcoholism use a smartphone intervention. Journal of Dual Diagnosis, 8(4), 294–304.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Miller, G. (2012). The smartphone psychology manifesto. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(3), 221–237.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Mitchell, J., Vella-Brodrick, D., & Klein, B. (2010). Positive psychology and the internet: A mental health opportunity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 6(2), 30–41.Google Scholar
  52. Mohr, D. C., Burns, M. N., Schueller, S. M., Clarke, G., & Klinkman, M. (2013). Special section: Health information technology and mental health services research: A path forward. Behavioral intervention technologies: Evidence review and recommendations for future research in mental health. General Hospital Psychiatry, 35, 332–338.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Nelson, S. K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2012). Finding happiness: Tailoring positive activities for optimal well-being benefits. In M. Tugade, M. Shiota, & L. Kirby (Eds.), Handbook of positive emotions. New York: Guilford.Google Scholar
  54. Norrish, J. M., & Vella-Brodrick, D. A. (2007). Is the study of happiness a worthy scientific pursuit? Social Indicators Research, 3, 393–407.Google Scholar
  55. Ozdalga, E., Ozdalga, A., & Ahuja, N. (2012). The smartphone in medicine: A review of current and potential use among physicians and students. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 14(5), 142–155.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Parks, A. C., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2013). Positive interventions: Past, present and future. In T. Kashdan & J. Ciarrochi (Eds.), Mindfulness, acceptance, and positive psychology: The seven foundations of well-being (pp. 140–165). Oakland, CA: Context.Google Scholar
  57. Parks, A., Della Porta, M., Pierce, R. S., Zilca, R., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2012). Pursuing happiness in everyday life: The characteristics and behaviors of online happiness seekers. Emotion, 12(6), 1222–1234.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Plaza, I., Demarzo, M. M. P., Herrera-Mercadal, P., & García-Campayo, J. (2013). Mindfulness-based mobile applications: Literature review and analysis of current features. JMIR mhealth and uhealth, 1(2), e24.Google Scholar
  59. Radloff, L. S. (1977). The CES-D scale: A self-report depression scale for research in the general population. Applied Psychological Measurement, 1, 385–401.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Raento, M., Oulasvirta, A., & Eagle, N. (2009). Smartphones: An emerging tool for social scientists. Sociological Methods & Research, 37(3), 426–454.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Riley, W. T., Rivera, D. E., Atienza, A. A., Nilsen, W., Allison, S. M., & Mermelstein, R. (2011). Health behavior models in the age of mobile interventions: Are our theories up to the task? Translational Behavioral Medicine, 1(1), 53–71.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Ritterband, L. M., Thorndike, F. P., Cox, D. J., Kovatchev, B. P., & Gonder-Frederick, L. A. (2009). A behavior change model for internet interventions. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 38(1), 18–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Rosen, G. M. (1987). Self help treatment books and the commercialization of psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 42, 46–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Rosen, G. M. (1993). Self-help or hype? Comments on psychology’s failure to advance self-care. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 24, 340–345.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Schueller, S. M. (2010). Preferences for positive psychology exercises. Journal of Positive Psychology, 5, 192–203.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Schueller, S. M. (2011). To each his own well-being bosting intervention: Using preference to guide selection. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(4), 300–313.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Schueller, S. M., & Parks, A. C. (2012). Disseminating self-help: Positive psychology exercises in an online trial. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 14, e63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happiness. New York: Simon & Schuster.Google Scholar
  69. Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. NY: Free Press.Google Scholar
  70. Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 51–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410–421.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Shafer, A. B. (2006). Meta-analysis of the factor structures of four depression questionnaires: Beck, CES-D, Hamilton, and Zung. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62(1), 123–146.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Shapiro, S. L., & Carlson, L. E. (2009). The art and science of mindfulness: Integrating mindfulness into psychology and the helping professions. Washington, DC: American Psychology Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 73–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Sin, N. L., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2009). Enhancing well-being and alleviating depressive symptoms with positive psychology interventions: A practice friendly meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65, 467–487.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Stevens, C., & Bryan, A. (2012). Rebranding exercise: There’s an App for that. American Journal of Health Promotion, 27(2), 69–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Superbetter. (2014). About Superbetter. Retrieved Sept 2, 2014 from
  78. Ussher, M., Spatz, A., Copland, C., Nicolaou, A., Cargill, A., Amni-Tabrizi, N., et al. (2014). Immediate effects of a brief mindfulness-based body scan on patients with chronic pain. Journal of Behavioural Medicine, 37(1), 127–134.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Watson, D., Clark, L. A., & Tellegen, A. (1988). Development and validation of brief measures of positive and negative affect: The PANAS scales. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 1063–1070.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Webb, T. L., Joseph, J., Yardley, L., & Michie, S. (2010). Using the Internet to promote health behavior change: A systematic review and meta-analysis of the impact of theoretical basis, use of behavior change techniques, and mode of delivery on efficacy. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 12(1), e4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Wolfenden, L., Brennan, L., & Britton, B. I. (2010). Intelligent obesity interventions using smartphones. Preventive Medicine: An International Journal Devoted to Practice and Theory, 51(6), 519–520.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Zeidan, F., Gordon, N. S., Merchant, J., & Goolkasian, P. (2010). The effects of brief mindfulness meditation training on experimentally induced pain. Journal of Pain, 11(3), 199–209.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Annika Howells
    • 1
    Email author
  • Itai Ivtzan
    • 1
  • Francisco Jose Eiroa-Orosa
    • 1
  1. 1.University of East LondonLondonUK

Personalised recommendations