With braceleted wrists, Bob Geldof hair and a chirpy British accent as props, Michael Acton Smith is demonstrating how the happiest app in the world works. With one click on an iPhone, words flash up instructing us – with just the right amount of passive aggressiveness – to “take a deep breath”. Birds chirrup and waves lap on some unseen shore. Are we on the banks of Lake Tahoe, in the mountains of Colorado, or perhaps lounging by a Tahitian beach? Regardless, everything is sunny and good in the world. “Who ordered the macchiato?” interrupts the waiter. Ah, yes: we’re actually in Soho House in London, and rain is hammering on the windows.
Founded by serial entrepreneurs Acton Smith and Alex Tew, Calm is a meditation app that spirits away stressed urbanites to a more peaceful realm via anti-anxiety tutorials and bedtime stories. Together with Headspace it dominates the meditation-app world (they racked up roughly 90 per cent of the €24m in revenue made by wellness apps in the first quarter of 2018), delivering an ancient practice to a modern audience by making it smartphone friendly. Paradoxically, given its platform, it has proven incredibly popular with westerners weary of the digital world. In 2017, Calm was named Apple’s app of the year and a survey of 200,000 people by the Center for Humane Technology revealed it to be “the happiest app”, beating Headspace and Spotify. It’s been valued at $250m (€218m) and last year boasted 35 million downloads and more than one million paying customers, each forking out $60 (€52) annually. Acton Smith and Tew are beatific. While apps are the most conspicuous type of business to make money out of the idea of cheering us up, they’re hardly alone. The wellness revolution has mushroomed into a $4.2trn (€3.7trn)industry and the pursuit of happiness is emerging as an adjunct of sorts, with a fast-growing pool of consumers – led by younger generations in big cities – taking their mental health as seriously as their physical wellbeing. “In the last couple of years we’ve seen the language of happiness ascend,” says Beth McGroarty, director of research and PR at the Global Wellness Institute, a non-profit based in Miami. “Like the wellness market, happiness is consumer-driven and not medical. Companies are rushing in to solve a problem: people are willing to spend a lot of money to become a little happier, or a little less unhappy. We’re seeing its use rise in businesses, governments and schools.”
We’re desperate for salvation: we want to feel great! And we will pay for the privilege. Whether it’s mindfulness apps, trendy meditation studios or “happiness consultants” for workplaces, a new generation of entrepreneurs is only too happy to meet our needs. The eye-rolling – yes, even among the Brits – has slowed. The wallets have opened. This is no flower-children parade; happiness is serious business.
It’s been a slow rise. Acton Smith and Tew began brainstorming a meditation app while sharing a house in London in the late 2000s (both are now based in Silicon Valley). “Rather than convince people to buy heavy books or strange CDs from weird bookshops, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be good to make meditating cool and contemporary?’” says Tew. Not really, came the feedback. In the first round of funding they approached 100 people but just 10 invested. “Most people thought it was a ridiculous idea,” adds Tew.
It wasn’t until 2012 that Calm launched, with honey-toned meditation veteran Tamara Levitt as the voice of the app and routines such as the “Breathe Bubble,” which slows your breathing in 30-second chunks. It gained traction, especially among New Yorkers and Londoners aged 25 to 40, but its breakthrough came in 2016 when it unveiled Sleep Stories, a collection of bedtime tales read by the UK’s dreamiest voices (Stephen Fry and Joanna Lumley among them).
For many – including, most famously, Arianna Huffington – the pursuit of better sleep is a cornerstone of wellness. Unlike meditating, “there’s no stigma associated with sleep – everyone does it”, says Acton Smith. “So most people now come [to Calm] for the sleep and stay for meditation.”
It’s in the past year that mindful, happy pursuits have reached critical mass and become mainstream (and thus more profitable), allowing Calm to grow its team to a staff of 40. “Something happened in society in 2017, particular around the pushback on screens and mobile phones,” says Acton Smith. “The big tech companies are starting to take some responsibility for these extraordinary devices, giving people better tools to monitor how they use them. And we’re constantly hearing in the press about the growth of anxiety, depression, insomnia – all these very important mental health issues. So all of this is coming together.”
In that happiest-app survey, the apps deemed unhappiest were those that rely on the dopamine chase that is central to all that swiping and scrolling: Tinder, Grindr, Instagram, Facebook. The happiest, by contrast, are not addictive; 10 to 15 minutes per day will satisfy. Their solution is akin to an anti-venom: use a dash of the poison that’s doing the damage – technology – as an antidote to digital fatigue. “Smartphones are not good or bad: they’re tools,” says Acton Smith. “The key is helping people become the master of these devices, not slaves to them.”
Happiness has been used to sell products since forever – think of smiling families peddling sports cars, life insurance and Coke. Today it’s the emotion itself that’s being sold – although what’s packaged as “happiness” is really tips for better sleep, say, or an enforced time out from social media. “The best companies in the happiness space are providing people with training programmes to do the work to become happy,” says Dr Laurie Santos, who teaches Psychology and the Good Life, the most popular course in the history of Yale (1,200 students signed up when it launched this year). “Take a meditation app that includes a way to track how often you’re practising. These tools help you begin meditating and keep at it to form a habit. So in this case I don’t think it’s a marketing ploy.”
It’s not just individuals who are buying into it. Samantha Clarke sells happiness to clients as varied as the nhs, the Royal Bank of Scotland, Shopify and UK restaurant group Dishoom. A chic thirty-something with a calm mien, she is carving out a lucrative career as a happiness consultant, advising companies on how to make employees more upbeat. “I help companies think about how you get to the heart of who [each employee] is and how they can show up at work and be their best,” she says, sipping a turmeric latte when we meet in central London.
Clarke started in advertising at Saatchi & Saatchi but, unsatisfied, she studied coaching and psychology before first pitching herself as a “happiness consultant” in 2013. “It was a bit tongue in cheek,” she says. “Part of me wanted to poke fun at people’s perceptions of what happiness means – and whether it belongs in the workplace.”
Her services span one-day workshops, weekend retreats and six-month programmes, with solutions including the introduction of set times each day when employees answer emails, daily pause sessions (where everyone sits quietly for five minutes) and walking meetings to get people out of the office. Her speech is scattered with the odd aspirational adjective but she means business. “I’m not going to suggest one yoga session to fix everything – and I’m not saying we should be ‘Kumbayah-ing’ every day.”
Clarke’s effectiveness is measured by things such as comparing companies’ employee-retention rates before and after intervention, or encouraging businesses to hold “leaving interviews” where they sit down with employees to find out how much they enjoy their jobs and how likely they are to jump ship. It seems to work. Longstanding client Dishoom, for example, says its retention rate has increased by 10 per cent since it started working with Clarke in 2017.
Inviting happiness gurus into workplaces has become common, from the popularisation of the role of chief happiness officer across the US (most famously at Google) to start-ups hiring freelance consultants. Businesses consider it a worthwhile investment because studies show that happier employees are more productive workers. And there are plenty of employees who need cheering up. Thanks to smartphones we are always on the job – answering emails on the Tube, at dinner, over weekends – and remote working has amplified anxieties. A recent survey by office-supply company Staples revealed that nearly 90 per cent of UK office workers regularly think about switching jobs and roughly half “run to the loo to hide”.
A positive workplace is particularly important to the young. UK employment-review website Glassdoor found those entering the workforce today place a high priority on whether there’s a “wellbeing” programme. “I feel like we’re on that cusp where people, especially younger generations, are wondering, ‘Why does work have to be monotonous?’” says Clarke.
Just like actual happy people, the happiness sector is a sitting duck for a takedown. Happiness has gone mainstream but a cloud of cynicism still surrounds the concept. One company looking to hire Clarke didn’t want to use the title “happiness consultant” because it sounded “gimmicky.” Acton Smith and Tew say many people still “don’t get” Calm.
Some have also questioned the ethics of monetising happiness. After all, money might not buy happiness but being able to actively pursue happiness through paid-for apps and expensive classes is a luxury. “We believe that we should be monetising this – $60 a year compared to a session with a therapist is fantastic value,” says Acton Smith. The alternative, says Tew, is to have advertising, which seems absurd. Chakra with a side of Mercedes-Benz, anyone?
Of greater concern is whether these products have merit. Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor specialising in happiness and consumer psychology at Harvard Business School, says it’s important not to overstate how “happy” a single product or service can make us. She explains that if you do any one thing to a person, whether that’s sending them on a shopping spree or to a meditation class, you can only raise their happiness level by a maximum of 3 per cent because there are so many other factors – genetics and relationships, for example – affecting us. “There’s no harm in the industry, it’s just up to consumers to be cautious,” says Whillans. “We shouldn’t be hanging too much on any one product or tool – there is no silver bullet.”
Back at Soho House, the rain is still pounding but not enough to dampen the spirits of Calm’s founders and their vision for the future. “We think we can build a multibillion-dollar business, one of the world’s most meaningful brands,” says Acton Smith. “Digital will always be the heart but we love the idea of taking this brand offline and building a ‘Nike for the mind’. What if we had Calm coffee shops or Calm books; Calm clothing; Calm hotels optimised for sleep? Ultimately we want to buy an island and create Calm Island, the world’s most relaxing resort. Which could be a lot of fun.”
It does sound fun – and, bar the island, much like the expansion plans of any mega-brand in any sector. Except that, at its core, inside that little blue-iconed app that gives you pause, plays ocean sounds in your ears or helps you drift off to sleep, there is a drive to cheer you up. Even if it’s incremental, it’s enough to raise a smile.