Coding for Happiness

JC Velten

3 weeks ago

Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.

Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.

"When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down 'happy'. They told me I didn't understand the assignment, and I told them they didn't understand life."- John Lennon

We started Swim because we felt the same way about the big apps we used: they do not understand life. What were fantastic inventions to connect us with the people we love and with the world, became addictive, Fomo ways to remind us that everyone else has a much more interesting life than we do. Their big algorithm evolved to optimize for addiction, seeking to replace our life rather than enhance it; pushing us, post by post, to substitute our amazing world with their egocentric version of what our life should be about, which they now call the 'metaverse.'

We don't blame them. The temptation to make an app addictive is very high when your incentives are in the wrong place. Subtle design choices such as a 'like' button or a counter showing you how many people react to your post, work on your brain in a similar way as the substances that make smoking or drugs addictive: a rush of feeling good that decays fast so you come back for the next one, and so on.

We coded Swim in a different way. During our year-long journey to the App Store, we studied the subject of happiness and how technology can aid us on our search for it. We decided to force ourselves to code Swim for happiness from day one, lest we forget, as the big apps did, our reason for existing.

One of the most relatable concepts we came across is what Shawn Achor calls "The Happiness Advantage," in his New York Times bestselling book with the same name. He has a brilliant and funny TED Talk where he explains his concept. As builders of a tool to enhance our life, we found this part of his talk quite insightful:

"What we're finding is that it's not necessarily the reality that shapes us but the lens through which your brain sees the world that shapes your reality [emphasis added]. And if we change the lens not only can we change your happiness, we can change every single educational and business outcome at the same time."

In other words, if an app becomes your lens to see the world, rather than simply a tool to interact with the people and the places you love, it has the power to shape your reality and determine how happy you are. Think of all those moments during your day when you check these apps to see what their algorithm decides to show you - its reality - at the expense of yours.

So we decided to avoid the temptation to control your life coding "the lens through which your brain sees the world," as Shawn Achor put it, and create a simple tool that was completely under your control. A bit like a Slack for everyone, but with geo tagging to ensure our app enhances your world and does not become a destination by itself. No likes or counters at Swim for a quick rush of feeling good, which more than 600 of our Alpha users felt makes you addicted rather than happy. We did not see Swim as standing between you and what Achor refers to as your 'happiness advantage:'

"If you can raise someone's level of positivity in the present, then their brain experiences what we now call a happiness advantage."

After all, who are we to determine what makes you happy? So we coded an app you create, not us.

Another key insight we like from Shawn Achor is the true notion of sharing, as opposed to what social networks want us to think it is. Specifically, he states that:

"Only pursuing happiness and success together with others can we see our big potential."

This idea of shared happiness became the subject of another one of his books. The way we 'coded' it into the app was to ensure Swim helped you navigate life together with the people you care about. In practice, this insight inspired Swim's Pools, which work like 'mini social networks' you create with your crowd, in an organized way that does not force you scroll down an infinite and linear series of posts - and ads. Diving into Pools with your friends, we hope, will help you 'pursue happiness and success together' as they are not designed to replace your life, your world, or your reality. No algorithm decides what or who you see in your Pools.

Location was another key element of reality we thought big apps ignored or minimized. The decision to advance happiness by geo-taging all Pools came from ideas we learned by studying several Zen authors. One of them, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, teaches the simple concept that:

"Life is available only in the present moment."

For us, seeing people who are at wonderful places, beautiful cities or amazing landscapes, glued to their little screens checking Instagram or Tiktok, represented the opposite of Thich Nhat Hanh's valuable lesson of living in the present moment - wherever you are. Our app would be designed as a tool to connect you with your surroundings by amplifying them, not by taking you somewhere else. That's why Swim's home screen shows you what's around you, and empowers you to interact, learn and meet.

Do we understand better than others what life is about? Hell no. We strive to be constant learners of what life is not about, so that our app does not magnify it.



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