A New App Is Using Art to Help You Feel Better

Casey Lesser
Jan 28, 2019 6:09PM
James Turrell
Aten Reign, 2015
Galerie Maximillian

On an average weekday morning, I spend my early waking hours on my phone, toggling between as many as a dozen apps—checking my email, or dating prospects, or how well I slept—while also watching the news on TV and asking Alexa to tell me the weather or play music. I never stop to consider how this cacophony of content might be negatively affecting my mood or inciting stress. But now, there’s an app that aims to change such behaviors—by feeding us digital content that research says should make us feel better.

Launching today for iOS and Android, and in the form of audio content for Google Home and Amazon Alexa, the new Moodrise app promises to deliver what its founder, Michael Phillips Moskowitz (previously chief global curator at eBay), calls “digital nutrition.” Moodrise presents curated packages of photos, videos, graphics, sounds, music, and art, with the intention of helping to alleviate anxiety and other mood disorders, and maximize happiness. Through regular use—like how you might employ the meditation apps Headspace or Calm—it’s also meant to encourage us to develop healthier habits when it comes to using our phones, streaming videos, and even listening to music and podcasts.

“I wanted to help people improve emotional resilience,” Moskowitz said. “I wanted to improve outcomes around behavioral health and basically improve people’s experience on planet Earth.”

Screenshots from the Moodrise app.


Working with a team of consulting and advising scientists, doctors, curators, developers, and designers, Moskowitz built Moodrise based on vetted research studies that have shown how visual or auditory stimuli can improve human behavior and well-being. (Moodrise has the support of researchers from Stanford, Columbia, Harvard, Yale, and the University of Texas.)

Moskowitz created Moodrise in reaction to the moment we’re living in, what he calls “peak content,” which he compares to “peak tobacco” in the 1950s. The average person spends 12 hours and 7 minutes consuming content per day, he noted, and it’s having a known negative impact on health and happiness. Among other alarming stats, he pointed to the rate of suicide among teenage girls—which has doubled in the past decade—and that one in five Americans is clinically depressed, not counting those who are undiagnosed. Importantly, Moodrise is not meant to replace health professionals or medications, but rather provide a new wellness option to people who experience mental health issues or simply want a non-pharmacological boost.

Upon opening the app—which has a logo and opening interface that resembles a James Turrell “Skyspace”—users are prompted to select a treatment. They’re presented with a series of seven day-glo-colored tiles, each one for a different mood states and its related neurotransmitter: Happiness (serotonin), Confidence (dopamine), Connection (oxytocin), Energy (endorphins), Calm (GABA), and Focus (acetylcholine). Tap into one and you can start a “treatment,” a slideshow of around 10 cards. Launch the first chapter for Confidence, for example, and you’ll see a strangely soothing video of a performance by musician Helado Negro of people swaying while cloaked in silver tinsel; swipe up, and you can see an article from the Journal of Psychopharmacology about how “new or unexpected imagery can activate dopamine pathways and produce feelings of pleasure.”

The Moodrise team finds these articles, sends them to their consulting doctors and scientists to ensure they’re viable, then uses them to procure content for the app. To scale this process, they use machine-learning and AI, though real scientists will still ensure that the studies are sound.

Courtesy of Moodrise.

Each piece of content the app presents—be it a mesmerizing animation of bouncing colored balls, ambient music, the sound of a rushing river, a video of a pug getting a belly rub, or original music by singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart—is carefully selected by Moodrise’s curators and always tied to scientific research. (The ample number of cute animal videos, for example, are backed by a November 2015 study that found they “can improve mood and increase productivity.”)

At the end of each chapter, an animation appears prompting you to rate your mood—data that is collected for the user to help track personal progress over time. Though there are currently 10 chapters per category available on the app, there will be more content accessible to paying subscribers in the future, for $6.99 per month.

Currently, much of what you’ll see on the app comes from creators on Instagram (who are credited for their work), as well as YouTube, Creative Commons, Giphy, and other media repositories. But through the design and interface, you can see that art is built into Moodrise’s DNA. The calming, luminous aesthetics are inspired by historic and contemporary artists, including pioneers of light and color like Turrell, Josef Albers, and Doug Wheeler. Moskowitz notes that in the future, there may be opportunities to work directly with visual artists to create original visual content for Moodrise—which they’re already doing with audio content.

On Google Home and Amazon Alexa, users can listen to quick podcasts that include a score by Banhart and voiceovers from actor Kristin Scott Thomas (the company is in talks with other musicians and artists to produce more original content). Moskowitz calls them “pill casts”—“segments of 90 seconds or less that can trigger specific chemicals in your brain to feel better.”

Screenshots from the Moodrise app.

Moodrise also has plans for a content labeling system—like the nutritional labels on your food—that they will license to other platforms to tell us, for example, if a TV show or a YouTube video will trigger GABA; you can imagine it as a small purple triangle or a yellow square appearing in the corner of your screen or browser, helping you determine which media or even art to seek out in order to feel calm or less lonely.

“If you view trees, brooks, other elements of the natural world, that typically triggers the release of GABA, so you could imagine looking at photos by Ansel Adams,” Moskowitz explained. He also pointed to seascapes by Hiroshi Sugimoto and the landscapes of Andreas Gursky. Meanwhile, if you’re looking at nudes by Richard Avedon, he noted, those might trigger oxytocin.

It’s another way of thinking about the kind of positive dividends that exposure to art can impart,” Moskowitz said. “It’s also another way of making more informed decisions about the content that you’re watching on your phone, on the internet, or on television.”

He’s careful to emphasize that Moodrise is not the solution to mental health crises, but rather a new resource. The company is already selling enterprise subscriptions to businesses, which will offer their employees access to the app as part of their health benefits, similar to the way some companies subsidize the cost of gym memberships.

Moskowitz sees it as an offering that’s in line with the way that doctors in the U.K. and elsewhere are increasingly open to prescribing people visits to art museums to feel better. “Well that’s great,” he said, “but what if we can deliver a similar experience from the palm of your hand?”

Casey Lesser
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Director of Content.