Website Tracks Your Happiness to Remind You Life’s Not So Bad

As you go about your business online, "SmileTracker" captures your happier moments so you can reflect on what makes you feel good on the Internet.
image via Smile Tracker

image via Smile Tracker

People spend hours on the Internet each day—roughly 11, to be exact—and the cascade of information that floods into someone’s brain via smartphone, laptop, or tablet in that time can often manipulate their emotions, causing them to fluctuate between the good and the bad.

With so much negativity in the news, and the stress associated with people’s plugged-in lives bogging them down, Natasha Jaques wants to make sure that at least the happier times are well documented.

Over at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Jaques has been working on a website called “SmileTracker,” an online resource that snaps photos of people’s expressions while they spend time on their computers so they can be reminded of their more pleasurable moments on the web.

“The goal is to make people happier,” she said. “It’s an unobtrusive easy way for people to get some enjoyment from [the Internet], and it will hopefully make them have a more positive outlook on their lives.”

By tapping into a person’s computer camera (with permission), SmileTracker uses open-source facial expression recognition software to capture and detect when a person is smiling. Whenever a user has a happy expression on their face, the camera will capture that moment, and the website will take a screenshot of what’s on their computer that’s producing the jovial reaction.

“It records that and the screenshot in a profile for you to look at later,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard to recognize that a few positive things did happen, especially if you’re in a negative mood. You don’t tend to think about them.”

Jaques said the photos can’t be seen by anybody else—“they are under your own control”—but users can share them freely if they feel whatever it was they were looking at on the web could bring happiness to others.

“You can publish it to social networks,” she said. “That’s the basic idea.”

The project, supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, was spun out of a new wellness initiative class at the lab called “The Tools for Well Being.” The idea behind that class was to have students create a project with the goal of increasing the wellbeing of people in some form, and make their lives better as a whole.

“Technology has long shaped the patterns of everyday life, and it is these patterns—of how we work, eat, sleep, socialize, recreate, and get from place to place—that largely determine our health,” said Stephen Downs, chief technology and information officer at RWJF. “We’re excited to see the Media Lab turn its creative talents and its significant influence to the challenge of developing technologies that will make these patterns of everyday life more healthy.”

With the help of her lab partner, Weixuan Vincent Chen, in just a few months the pair created “SmileTracker” to help examine positive psychology as a means to ward off depression and spark those changes.

“There’s this well-validated exercise that if at the end of every day you just deliberately recall three things that went well during your day it will actually make you happier in the long run, and you tend to be less depressed,” she said.

Because it’s difficult  for people to break through the negative points throughout the day, and keep focus on the bright parts that made you feel elated with joy, they decided to create the website.

“We wanted to automate it,” said Jaques. “The pictures and happy moments are automatically recorded [with SmileTracker], and you’re reminded [of those moments] at the end of the day.”

SmileTracker is still in its infancy, and is currently just a functional prototype, but Jaques and Chen are hoping to expand upon their experiment.

“We’d like to do more research about whether or not it does improve your wellbeing,” she said. “I’d love to see it it be deployed more widely.”


Steve Annear Steve Annear, Digital Writer at Boston Magazine sannear@bostonmagazine.com