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Does your computer make you happy? Does the blue and black dress debate make you sad?


Does your computer bring you joy (other than those cutesy cat pictures and the annoying blue and black dress debate)?

There should be more wellness in the world of computing according to two University of Sydney researchers who are calling on developers to rethink how they approach designing computer software. 

Professor Rafael Calvo, School of Electrical and Information Technology and Dorian Peters, Faculty of Education and Social Work are urging developers to employ “positive computing” software methods in their design processes.

In their recently published book ‘Positive Computing: Technology for Wellbeing and Human Potential’ Calvo and Peters explain that technologists’ growing interest in social good is part of a larger public concern about how our digital experience affects our emotions and overall quality of life.

Professor Calvo, Director of the Positive Computing Lab and Co-Director of the Software Engineering Group at the University believes we are at risk of becoming slaves to our own computer designs, when instead we should be directing them in ways that foster our happiness.

“It is not just about getting a computer to do more things for you,” says the Professor whose research is focussed on the design of systems that specifically support well-being in areas of mental health, medicine and education,” he stated.

“For the past three decades we have been focussed on technology for improving performance and productivity – we need to move on from that – towards developing technology that respects and improves our well-being, something we call positive computing.”

A new spin on tech ‘support’

The pair has been researching the effects of computer technology on a person’s wellness and they argue that technology can support things, such as positive emotions, self-awareness, mindfulness, empathy, and compassion.  

According to Peters, there are already examples that show certain technology designs can increase altruism, positive emotion, and self-awareness.  On a recent trip to Silicon Valley, they met with researchers at Facebook who run the company’s “Compassion Project”, and gave a seminar as part of “Mindfulness Week” at Google.

“Even people at the big tech companies are starting to see the benefits of considering impact on well-being for both business and social reasons,” said Peters.

“We know how to make technology irresistible, addictive even,” said Professor Calvo. “We should re-purpose this knowledge into designing digital products that support quality of life and psychological flourishing.”

By the book

In the book, the pair breaks the notion of well-being down to its fundamental  parts.  They focus on factors like autonomy, connectedness, and meaning, all of which have been shown by research to be key to well-being.

Peters cites two of their current projects (one with Asthma Australia and one with the Children’s Hospital Westmead) both designed to help adolescents with chronic illness transition from paediatric care to mature self-management.

“If this was just about dealing with the practical, we could just make an app that reminded them to take their medicine, but this is about something bigger. It’s about helping young people develop a sense of competence and autonomy, both of which are key factors of psychological well-being.”