Hiram College

Acacia Parks, assistant professor of psychology at Hiram College (photo courtesy of Amanda Parks)

South by Southwest Interactive brings together the brightest minds in technology each March in Austin, Texas. This year, Acacia Parks, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Hiram College, is among the visionaries who will be presenting at the world-renowned showcase of the newest websites, games and start-up companies.

Dr. Parks, who specializes in positive psychology, has been scientific advisor to the start-up company Happify since 2011. Happify is a website and app, rooted in positive psychology research, that aims to increase users’ happiness through games, activities and exercises. On March 16, 2015, she will join Happify President Ofer Leidner, M.B.A., in presenting “Money Can’t Buy Happiness but Data Can Teach It” at South by Southwest Interactive.

The festival attracts many entrepreneurs and techies, and Dr. Parks said their panel discussion will demonstrate how a scientist and entrepreneur can work together.

“We provide a good model for other entrepreneurs who might want to take science to the general public,” Dr. Parks said. “Happify is not only providing this great service, but it’s also providing a model for how scientific collaboration can happen in a real-world entrepreneurship environment. There are plenty of other areas where science can be helpful.”

She and Leidner will also highlight how people might use data about their own behaviors, thoughts and emotions – “the emotional graph” – in deciding how to live their lives most optimally.

Happify users are assigned to or select goals that will lead to increased happiness, based on their answers to a happiness questionnaire. Goals may include strengthening relationships with children or a spouse, managing stress, reducing anxiety and becoming more confident. The website then assigns daily games, tasks and reflections that work toward the goal.

As scientific advisor, Dr. Parks works directly with writers and game designers to ensure these activities and website content – though written and designed to be consumed by the general public – are rooted in scientific research about positive psychology.

“For example, research says that if you want to be happier, every night you should write down three good things that happened to you,” Dr. Parks said. “The team then creates different activities for that, in line with different goals. So if your goal is to reconnect with your spouse, you might write down three good things that your spouse did that day.”

Happify boasts more than 700,000 users – and counting. Dr. Parks has analyzed initial data that suggests what they are doing is working, but her complete analysis will not be finished until the summer.

“Happify wants research that is on the level of what the scientific community expects,” she said. “They don’t want to just show their investors numbers. They want scientific rigor. They want it at the level that can be published in a journal.

“That makes them special. In order for a collaboration between a start-up company and a researcher to work, that’s the level of commitment that the entrepreneurs need to have.”

In working with Happify, Dr. Parks has also accomplished her personal goals of making science accessible to the general public.

“I want to spread science in a way that is responsible and accurate,” Dr. Parks said. “You’ll find all kinds of websites on happiness that are made up or loosely based on research. Everything on Happify is based on science. It’s scientifically rigorous, but accessible. It’s what I always wanted to do.”

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