Does pleasure and happiness matter for health? And why aren’t more of our patients motivated to care for their own health?

At the most recent hxrefactored conference by Health 2.0 and Mad*Pow, David Sobel MD MPH (@KPHealthyFun), primary care physician and Director of Patient Education and Health Promotion for The Permanente Medical Group and Kaiser Permanente Northern California, spoke on designing apps and web experiences for health and happiness. The conference — which focused on healthcare experience design particularly in the context of web, wearable, and mobile technologies — attracted over 500 designers, developers, and leaders in health.


“Where do you focus on in the situation?” Sobel said. “The most recalcitrant, difficult to change [patients and users] — absorbing all your energy? Target the ready & willing: help people do what they already want to do.”

During his talk, Sobel noted that healthcare providers can become frustrated and cynical about prescribing things that fail. Much of medical care is focused on preventive screenings, exercise, and healthy diets. Providers can instead target issues that preoccupy patients’ minds — real life issues including stress, sex, and sleep — and use the principles of pleasure as part of one’s motivational toolbox.

His talk further incorporated medical evidence that pleasure and happiness improves patient outcomes. For instance:

  • People with higher happiness and life satisfaction reported 50% better health and less long-term limiting health conditions 2 years later
  • Factors such as life satisfaction, absence of negative emotions, and optimism cause better health and longevity
  • Touch therapy can benefit patients with PTSD, eating disorders, and other psychiatric patients
  • Altruism reduces mortality risk in seniors giving social support versus receiving support.
  • Having a view of nature led to postsurgical patients requiring less pain medication and being discharged one day sooner than a view of a brick wall
  • Watching a humorous video for 30 minutes per day resulted in post-myocardial infarction survivors having fewer arrhythmias, lower blood pressure, and lowered stress hormones.

When designing mobile applications and devices, these principles can influence user adoption and outcomes. Sobel states that behavior change within patients tend to occur in small, incremental planned changes. Applications could implement behavior change with different methods:

  • providing small steps, with feedback and performance data
  • using major life events triggering an epiphany or a breakthrough
  • making changes in a patient’s environment
  • making the patient feel good

In our next article, we’ll discuss Sobel’s next recommendations in designing for happiness; these principles can be incorporated into product designs.

Sobel’s complete slides on Designing for Health and Happiness is available on SlideShare, with references to articles and resources. Interact with Sobel at @KPHealthyFun.