Michael Phillips Moskowitz wants to nourish you. His new app, Moodrise, came from wrestling with big questions — and addressing the gaping deficits of our current healthcare system. “At the Kennedy School, I trained my sights and attention at the intersection of technology and civil society,” he tells What We Seee. “What I never expected to discover, but did, stunningly, was that mental health is fast becoming the major health crisis of our era. Not cancer or AIDS alone, but anxiety and depression. People everywhere are experiencing an unprecedented degree of emotional distress and uncommonly high rates of anxiety and depression. So, what the hell are we going to do about it?”
After that, he kept interrogating and kept asking what could change. “What would it mean to build the first digital drug company? How could we augment the provision of services, provisions of care?”
Enter, Moodrise — an app developed to improve your mood and sense of well-being, using content in a way it’s never been utilized before.
One of the most baffling parts of our access to technology is that, despite knowing that we have access to more resources and information than at any other point in human history, we tend to use it in ways that work against us, rather than for us. Many of us don’t spend our free time using the internet for research and for learning, we spend it scrolling on social media — even though we’re aware of the negative effects on our mental health. What’s different about Moodrise is that it seeks to harness the power of the resources available and deliver scientifically-backed content designed to make us happier — and healthier.
Moodrise goes beyond the idea that apps can entertain us — and asks what could happen if our apps helped, even nourished us? That nourishment comes in the form of “digital nutrition”.
The Sixth Pillar Of Happiness
Historically, different fields have discussed the five pillars of happiness — five facets that can help unlock the solution to a happier, more fulfilled life. But to Moskowitz, this idea needs to expand to fit a world that has been transformed by technology. “Given the downward trending figures in behavioral health coinciding with the release of the first iPhone in 2007, I would argue that we need, at the very least, a 6th pillar to support comprehensive health and well-being — digital nutrition,” he explains. “By which I mean our digital habits and hygiene: when and how we consume content — and what content we choose to consume.” Moodrise provides that digital nutrition.
“To start, we concentrated narrowly on existing forms of content or digital assets and experiences that are strongly correlated with specific molecules or neurotransmitters in the brain,” Moskowitz says. Research had already demonstrated some of these correlations — dopamine, for example, has been proven to improve confidence. Serotonin is connected to happiness — oxytocin gives you the cuddly feeling you get when bonding with a partner. And each of these can be triggered through exposure to specific types of content — art, language, and, yes, even GIFs. “We reached out to leaders in neuroscience and psychology, to guide, inform, validate, and verify our methodology. That’s when things really started,” he explains. The close scientific links have remained, with all content being approved and verified by scientists before being included in the app.
What that means for a user is if you seek out, say, a confidence boost, you may be presented with content that seems simple and fun — being asked to rethink the word “sea-section” against an image of an ocean or watching a GIF of lava flowing — but each element is curated to have a distinct, research-approved effect on the brain.
The app itself is a work of art — intuitive and beautiful, it has the same calming sensation of many of the images and GIFs that it features. Each section provides a microdose of the mood you might be looking for — Happiness (serotonin), Confidence (dopamine), Connection (oxytocin), Energy (endorphins), Calm (GABA), or Focus (acetylcholine). You tell the app your mood, then you choose an area that you want to work on and are led through a series of images and tasks, then you report on your mood again. The app learns what works for you, so it can give you more of it in the future.
Through this, it’s clear that Moskowitz wants to add a renewed sense of agency — to provide a tool that allows people to help themselves. “Many of us, myself included, have at one time or another lost touch with a deeper, keener awareness of how to meet our own vital needs,” he says. “If Moodrise can make it a little bit easier, not to self-medicate but to self-heal and enhance our own emotional resilience, that’s phenomenal — that’s hard to do, but hardly impossible. We’re inching closer every day.” But he’s also keenly aware that this is not a straightforward solution — it’s one section of a much larger issue. Moodrise fits into the larger landscape of the way the healthcare system is failing those caught up in the mental health crisis.
Moskowitz understands the limits of a current healthcare system — one that’s broken in America and struggling in the UK. For those dealing with the stress and anxiety of the modern world, Moodrise aims to provide a first-tier defence and strengthening tool, one that can help you raise your mood and learn more about what affects and benefits you. “What can you do before you even wander into a pharmacy looking for any kind of remedy,” he says. ‘What can I do myself to make myself happy and healthier longer? I think we’re all on a similar quest and Moodrise modestly endeavors to provide, at the very least, a series of clear or colorful road signs.”
The connection between technology, social media, and mental health issues is well documented — and some might find it counter-intuitive to reach for a phone to help with your mental health issues. But Moskowitz wants to provide a realistic option. He believes that we’re currently in the middle — or maybe toward the end — of “peak” content, with people consuming over seven hours a day. Just like with peak tobacco, it could take decades to change consumption, even though we know what we’re consuming can be toxic. “There’s the pipe dream of melting your phone and joining a monastic life, but that’s not realistic,” he says. “I hope we’ll be exposed to less material over the next five years — but I also hope we’ll self-administer content types that improve our experience on planet earth. Instagram doesn’t do that.”
Though he’s ambitious about the potential for the app, he’s also aware of its limitations — and the resources that those in the midst of a severe mental health crisis should turn to. “When we talk about mood, we’re not talking about a fixed or finite state, but about feelings along a continuum. Most people are somewhere in the middle and moving constantly. If we can track feelings as they shift and change, we can learn to push or nudge you toward solutions or treatments that work across a variety of moments and mood states. That can make a huge difference.”
A Different Type Of Behavior
While trying to empower people with resources to help themselves, Moodrise is also designed to be a different kind of company. “I think we’re trying to model a different type of behavior as partners, as co-founders, as team members, and as a company. We’re looking at what a successful company looks like — the brand identity, the culture,” he says. “It’s not just about developing engaging content or empathic technologies — it’s about creating a culture that leads to more desirable and enviable outcomes.” While it can feel like most tech companies are competing to see who can grab the most of our attention (and do the most damage in the process), Moskowitz is determined to change that paradigm.
“We can’t lose sight of our goal: helping people in pain. It’s them — or what you might call ‘the depressed self’, which I know all too intimately — that we’re trying and fighting to treat. To do it right, I think we have a responsibility to be our own customer and find solutions that don’t just work for an archetypal woman or man, girl or boy, but work for us.” It’s a laudable goal — and they’ve made a very strong start.