“Noomifying” – and thus “Gamifying” – Depression & Anxiety

A dear friend was telling me about her very positive experience – thus far – with Noom. Just in case you’ve missed the ads (they are all over my YouTube feed, so I must be in their target demographic), here’s the basic gist: Noom is a weight loss website/app/program. There is a charge associated with it (I think it’s $40 a month), but it gives you access to a slew of resources, including weight loss trackers, recipes, fitness goals, articles, and more. The app then gives you “points” for completing tasks, like reading articles or tracking your food.

This buddy of mine is an achievement lover – she’s was laughing as she told me that she has actually done Duolingo for over 1,000 days, even though she doesn’t care that much anymore – simply because she doesn’t want to lose her streak. This fascinated me. Noom apparently gives you little tasks – walk 3,000 steps, for example – and then slowly ups the ante. It thus creates a runway of small, achievable goals. It’s also largely psychology-based, giving users the opportunity to learn more about the mindset behind weight loss and encouraging them to identify flaws in their thinking that lead to more weight gain, or at least less weight loss.

Noom also divides food into three categories – green, yellow, and red. You limit your intake of yellow and red but are free to enjoy green.

This fascinated me. The problem with many of these diets is that you have to stay on them forever or they stop working, like Atkins. But as I understand Noom, it seems to be based on changing the way people think and their lifestyle. This strikes me as having the potential for more success.

Does it work? Yeah, maybe. Noom has an array of research on their website, but it’s unquestionably worth doing a bit of digging on your own. From what I could find, yes. It does seem to work.

All of this being said, I wasn’t trying to write about Noom and weight loss. As my friend was explaining this to me, it made me think: How can we gamify depression the same way?

What would that look like? Hard to say. After all, weight loss isn’t like depression, and depression can often be harder to shake free than weight loss is to lose. However, the lifestyle-centric nature of Noom is what strikes me as having the highest possibility to work, and a lifestyle change with an app – replete with professional resources, access to counselors, tasks you can complete that provide you a sense of accomplishment – that is interesting to me.

Aspects of the Noom app are gamification. You complete certain tasks, you get achievements or rewards. It steers your brain in a certain direction by creating artificial awards that reward desired behavior. Could you do that for depression? Again, hard. But not impossible.

I’m not the only one to come up with this idea, of course, and people smarter than me have written about, researched, and studied this concept. That research has been positive: It appears that a well-design app can actually improve mood and rates of depression.

This begs the question: What more can we do to gamify depression and anxiety treatment? What controls are needed to ensure that these apps go well and that users don’t experience a crisis – or become worse – while using an app? I don’t have answers, but I do believe that the potential is clearly there.

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