Social networks affect us in interesting ways. They can connect us with almost anyone in the world, bridge thousand-mile gaps between family and friends, and quickly mobilize communities around causes. But they can also fuel negative emotions tied to the inevitable comparisons we draw between ourselves and others.
In fact, there's a mountain of evidence, often controversial and frequently debated, built around the notion that loneliness and envy are key players in our social network use (PDF) -- as both the catalysts for more aggressive and obsessive sharing and as the foundations for truly dysfunctional relationships with our digital lives and the technology we use to manage them. Controversy over the evidence aside, an online persona may, for some, revolve around chasing likes, and it can morph into a never-ending quest to present the best version of one's self.
That's where Happier comes in. As a happiness-only social network, it attempts to be the key to improving the way we receive, reflect on, and react to other people's shared moments. Happier, which launched on iOS alongside a Web client in February (no plans for Android yet) and was part of a pitch contest this week at Fortune's Brainstorm Tech conference, is about sharing simple parts of our daily lives.
From that instance when a stranger performed a random act of kindness, to a proclamation that you simply love your new job, these kinds of moments are meant to draw emphasis away from the crafting of a self-image and toward the immediate positive emotion you happen to be feeling. And it turns out that this may let others in on the emotion far more easily and naturally.
The app is simply designed, with a large 'share happy' button at the bottom, accompanied by tabs for finding friends and monitoring collections -- the network's way of categorizing types of moments, with titles like "the little things" and "time with friends."
The posting panel also lets users add photos. And when scrolling through new posts, users hold down a central smiley face to trigger a like, and with a second press and hold they can share a photo taken of them on the spot, which is then shared with the author of the post.
Happier, which raised $2.4 million of funding last year from Resolute.VC and Venrock, is not necessarily aimed at individuals plagued by unhappiness or in need of daily remedy. Rather, it's geared toward a Pinterest-like crowd of average Web users, specifically women in Middle America between the ages of 18 and 35, explains Happier co-founder Nataly Kogan. So far, it's amassed roughly a million posts from more than 100,000 users.
Kogan said she'd like to see people get in the habit of responding to happy moments by sharing them on Happier -- in much the same way a beautiful scene or a well-laid table can prompt people to post a photo to Instagram, or a news event can trigger Facebook users to fire off a quick status update. "To me, Happier is creating a single emotional trigger," she said.
But unlike those other services, she said, Happier is less about bragging and more concerned with celebrating life. And over time it creates for the user a repository of pleasant memories. "That's how we think of it," Kogan said, "as a set of emotional bookshelves." The Happier concept involves Kogan's reliance on scientific research.
"I had a big eureka moment. First of all, I had been doing it wrong," she said on her bundling of happiness with success, a focus that spanned high-profile gigs in venture capitalism and publishing. What Kogan discovered was that motivational, consistent happiness could be found by "focusing on small positive things in your life." The idea is derived from numerous scientific studies, featured on the network's Web site, that cite notions like happiness being contagious and positivity contributing to a healthier lifestyle, as well as the thought that even on days that seem to consist of nothing but bad news or tragedy, finding some sort of silver lining, no matter how small, can be helpful.
Ultimately, Kogan decided against yet another book or article and chose instead to "inspire people to make this part of their lives."
The less you know, the better you feel
Interestingly, Happier seems to function surprisingly well when users are firing off posts to complete strangers.
"We released a public update and introduced the 'Discover' tab, and what we learned really quickly was that there is this huge value," said Kogan. "People want to read happy moments from people they might not know about."
That aspect is key, because it's often the comparison between close friends, longtime rivals, or those we've lost touch with that fuels our envy and accounts for the depressing nature of peering into others' lives on social networks. After all, it's harder to think less of one's self or succumb to jealousy when reading about a stranger's elation over her or his trip to Europe -- as opposed to someone that you know gets more time off than you or travels more for work.
It's the driving reason why, on August 1, Happier will be launching an update that will make all posts public by default. Happier 2.0 marks a big shift, Kogan said, from the initial model, which was focused on friends and family, to one that's more about the community at large. To push things along, Happier will be shifting from a friending mode to an approach akin to Twitter's and Instagram's, where users can follow someone else without the need for mutual acknowledgment (private accounts will also be an option).
"It's a huge shift in our thinking, and our users have taught us this," Kogan said.
Self-policing the supreme reign of Internet snark
When New York magazine ran a quick post on Happier earlier this week, it inspired a torrent of sarcastic comments meant to ridicule the idea of sharing only happy moments. Some gems included, "Lost my job! Now I can finally start my career as the bird lady" and "Just invented death ray! Successfully neutralized neighbors koi pond." It's a telling display of Internet snark, one you might suspect could run rampant on a service like Happier.
"There's nothing to prevent you from being snarky," Kogan admitted, adding that there are no ways for her team to suppress negative content. But it turns out that the community has been rather adept at self-policing. Snarkiness, Kogan said, hasn't been "getting any play." This doesn't, however, appear to be a very strong safeguard against the Internet troll machine that could ravage Happier for pure pleasure.
Such sabotage doesn't seem to be a worry of Kogan's, who's reassured constantly that her science-oriented approach to daily positivity is having a meaningful effect. "I make it a point to talk to a few users every few weeks. Whenever I talk to them, I ask them about other social networks," she said. "It's interesting because they see Happier as a positive place they can go and they can catch their breath."
Sure, Happier may be resigned to a life as a niche network solely because of its uniqueness. But judging from the activity of its users, who seem to be subscribing to Kogan's philosophy, Happier appears to have a solid future as an alternative to the catchall, consuming nature of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
As Kogan put it, "The content itself is the inspiration."