Waiting for my dinner order at T.G.I. Friday’s, I noticed the couple at the next table, both with noses buried in their Samsung Galaxies, and thought, what a depressing way to use a smartphone. Put them away and talk to each other. That got me thinking about better ways to use this technology—functions that would increase happiness instead of preempting conversations. Calling a friend or loved one for a warm chat came to mind first, but since people rarely use their phone for audible conversations these days, I needed to break new ground. Mental health apps like PTSD Coach, MyMoodTracker, and Let Panic Go caught my attention, but these do not address the typical user’s needs. Actually, several of your smartphone’s basic functions hold the keys to generating positive emotion.
Use the Notes Function to Keep a Compliment Log
Every smartphone has a Notes application—if yours doesn’t, then it’s not smart enough to help you, and it’s time for an upgrade. This app is all you need to document compliments—which generate more happiness than just about anything—and keep them handy for you to review anytime. Whenever someone pays you a compliment, no matter how simple, just start a new note, type the quote, and continue adding new compliments to that note as you receive them. You can also copy and paste words of praise from emails, texts, and other publications. For instance, if some nice person were to write a favorable comment for this post, I would copy/ paste it to my own log. No matter how dated the compliments, reading that log will bring their mood enhancing power into the present, and will provide you far more happiness than checking your Facebook wall.
Savor Your Own Pictures
Even if your smartphone has a weak camera, it will either store photos or let you access the internet for a photo sharing site like Facebook, Flickr, or Instagram (if it won’t, FAIL! Time to upgrade). Once you have set up access, start uploading your best pics, prioritizing the ones that make you smile or feel warm and fuzzy. Images of pets, cute kids, significant others, beautiful places visited, or anything that reminds you of joyous or unique events can all produce significant happiness. Wherever we take our phones, our most inspiring memories (in the form of photos) hitch a ride, so we might as well make it a habit to soak them up.
Reduce Stress with a Breathing Pacer
Although I’m not yet sold on mental health apps, I’m a big proponent of reducing stress with relaxation breathing, of which the health benefits are unequivocal. Using a breathing pacer can help make this practice more effective, and I used to rely on this web-based version, but recently discovered Breathe2Relax for the smartphone. This free app delivers an adjustable breathing pacer, pleasant (but optional) images and background music, and performance tracking. It is available for both iPhone and Android.
For additional stress reduction, your smartphone can deliver you guided imagery, mindfulness, and more advanced breathing exercises with .mp3 (audio) files, just like you would play music. You can purchase and download files from CD’s, iTunes, or Amazon.com, but you are welcome to sample some free, high quality relaxation audio files right here (just scroll for links to the exercises).
Avoid Repeated Checking
To maximize positive emotion with a smartphone, we must also steer clear of practices that increase stress and compromise happiness (like reading messages while on a date). A common problem is notifications, which insidiously build stress and drain energy. Initially, we appreciate the audible or vibrating reminders for each email, text, or calendar item, because we believe they keep us connected to important people and events. Ultimately, notifications become nothing more than interruptions, cutting into our conversations, tasks, and thoughts so often that our brains have to work twice as hard for half the output. I have observed clients check their buzzing phones for incoming texts 2-3 times in the middle of one sentence. Clearly, this undermines mental health and quality of life, as does any form of repeated checking of a smartphone, computer, or tablet.
To avoid this habit, consider silencing notifications unless you are truly an emergency responder, or unless you are expecting an imminent, critical message. Let others know that you do not check emails and texts continuously, and to call or see you in person for important matters. Finally, checking messages at longer intervals—no more than once every two hours—will help you discard the unwanted messages in one fell swoop, rather than allowing them to disrupt and distract you (i.e. cut you) continuously throughout the day. This will also free your mind from thinking about messages during that interval, lowering your mental baggage, and increasing your happiness.
Sometimes, we just need to ditch the phone. If our ultimate goal is to boost mental health, we must realize that smartphones have a limited role. In the pursuit of more powerful sources of positive emotion—social support, sunlight, physical activity, art, giving, etc.—we may need to power off.