Feature

Looking for a mood boost? For $1.99, you can download the Live Happy app and be reminded of scientifically proven benefits of positive psychology, such as looking at a photo of your daughter or expressing your gratitude to a co-worker.

The app is “a buddy who prompts you to maintain these positive activities,” says University of California, Riverside, psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, who worked with the software development company Signal Patterns to develop the app. It’s one of a growing group of apps for iPhones, iPads, Android and other mobile devices purporting to highlight psychological principles and get psychology’s message out.

The field is uneven, however. While some, like Live Happy, are based on strong research, others merely reinforce pop psychology, critics say. Still, as more psychologists get into the game, many are finding that apps provide a new way to promote psychology — and even help people who may not be comfortable with traditional therapy.

Lyubomirsky, for one, believes her app is opening psychology to a larger audience, “including those who wouldn’t read a self-help book.”

It’s also reaching clients in new ways, says Robert Woliver, PhD, a private practitioner in Kaneohe, Hawaii, who turned his children’s book on divorce — “Mango Season Doesn’t Last Forever” — into an app aimed at helping children realize they are not alone. Creating the app was simple: He hired a high school student to do the programming. His Divorce App, which works on the iPad and iPhone, costs $3.99 at the Apple App store. It precisely replicates the book’s three dozen color pictures, which were drawn by children going through divorce. For the app, Woliver added activities for parents and children, and the iPad version allows children to draw their own pictures.

Other psychologists are developing software for fellow or future psychologists. One is New York-based psychologist Michael Britt, PhD, whose app, PsycExplorer, provides tips and articles for the clinical psychologist or student. Many of Britt’s users are teachers who use the app to direct students toward new or well-developed research.

Some practitioners, meanwhile, are using the power of apps to enhance their client services. Keely Kolmes, PsyD, a private practitioner in San Francisco, for example, used to record relaxation exercises for her clients on cassette tapes in the 1990s. These days, she uses the iPhone’s voice memo utility. She records personalized in-session relaxation exercises for the up to 80 percent of her patients with anxiety disorders who ask for this, either sending the file via email or recording it directly on their phone to take with them.

“It’s much more convenient,” she says, joking that she had to explain what a cassette is to some of her younger clients. “It complements what we are doing together in therapy.”

Here are some of the other psychology apps making news:

  • The 3D Brain is a free iPhone and Droid app developed by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s Dolan DNA Learning Center. The app is an offshoot of the center’s website, “Genes to Cognition Online,” which promotes education around the genetic aspects of psychological disorders. In one of 9,000 reviews on iTunes, one psychologist wrote that he had used the app to show his client with post-traumatic stress disorder where his stress symptoms are coming from, commenting that the patient now “can see it instead of just hear it.”

“It was meant to expand and let people at each end of the molecular genetics and psychology spectrum to reach up or down to other levels,” David Micklos, the center’s executive director, says. “This allows a new way for people to think about the brain and brain disorders.”

  • Encyclopedia of Psychology is an educational guide to the basics of psychology, including pictures of the brain. It includes topics ranging from Freud to modern psychology. Developed by MedicMake, a medical development company, it complements the company’s other apps, such as the Human Muscle Encyclopedia and 3D apps of the brain, heart, digestive system, skeletal system and lungs. Available for $0.99 download from iTunes.
  • iCounselor Anxiety, developed by Dustin Swede and social worker Barbara Lester, promotes cognitive behavioral therapy, with users rating their level of anxiety. The user then follows instructions for a calming activity and finding a way to change his or her thoughts. Also available for anger, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and eating disorders. Available through iTunes for $0.99.

Elizabeth Leis-Newman is a writer in Baltimore.

Check out APA’s apps

So far, APA offers two apps, both free:

  • APA Journals for iPhone. This app offers a quick and invaluable service for researchers, clinicians and students: article titles and abstracts for all journals available in APA’s PsycARTICLES database.
  • The Grouchies. Based on the 2010 Magination Press book, this app shows kids simple and fun ways to turn around grouchy moods — and helps them understand how their mood and negativity gets in the way of having a good day. Information for parents offers easy-to-apply tips and tools for helping their kids when a grumpy day comes along.