The idea that computer software can tend to human mental illnesses and even promote well-being might not be as outrageous as you think.
Self-treating depression and anxiety with digital therapy
The belief that most of us would benefit from a spell on the psychiatrist's couch has been popular for years now. Back in the 1970s, Woody Allen introduced us to a generation of neurotic New Yorkers for whom "therapy" was a given, and it wasn't long before many followed suit, seeking a balm for the feeling that, as Allen says in Annie Hall, "Life is full of misery, suffering, loneliness and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly".
Today, even if you're not depressed, anxious or in the grip of relationship Armageddon, there are still plenty of options. A host of life coaches – a late 20th-century, Oprah-age invention – will offer you therapy-lite that promises to overcome uncertainty and self-doubt and set you on the path to unlimited happiness and wealth. Hey, who hasn't watched the occasional Tony Robbins (www.tonyrobbins.com) video and felt inspired to Awaken the Giant Within?
Now, though, several start-ups are set to disrupt the old models of clinical therapy and "be all you can be" coaching. Some promise instant access to therapists, wherever you are. Still others are dispensing with therapists altogether and, instead, grounding their service in the intriguing evidence that computer programmes can cure our ills just as well as trained health professionals.
Take iCouch (www.icouch.com). This start-up offers an online platform that claims to put you only five clicks and a few minutes away from a webcam therapy session with a trained counsellor. "Depressed? Anxious? We're here to help you," says the home screen.
Meanwhile, a host of apps seek to put therapy in your pocket. The Mood Swings app (www.moodswinglife.com) allows you to record your mood daily by choosing from a range of faces, attaching notes to your record and sharing it with friends. Over time, the makers say, you'll become more aware of your daily emotions and, crucially, the patterns in the way they change. There's evidence that this awareness can help you to be happier.
Why stop there? Connective technologies mean that whatever your problem or life goal, you can always reach others who feel the same. Mindbloom (www.mindbloom.com) is an online social game that allows you to set goals, discover what motivates you and connect with others to provide peer-to-peer support and advice.
But do we need other human beings at all when it comes to motivation and support, or even when it comes to serious illnesses such as depression and anxiety?
Clinical trials show that, surprisingly, it seems not. Evidence shows computer software that walks depressed or anxious users through a course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – which teaches patients how to reassess distressing thoughts and feelings - can work just as well as one-on-one talking therapies. MoodGym (www.moodgym.anu.edu.au) offers an online CBT course that tests show can promote happiness and protect you against future mental health problems.
The evidence has been gathered quietly, but the concept that software can tend to human mental illness just as well as people is revolutionary. Sometimes, it seems, we just need the right message and it doesn't matter who – or what – delivers it. Does a software algorithm for human happiness really exist? Let's hope so. Until then, there still are Woody Allen jokes and Tony Robbins videos to turn to.
David Mattin is a senior analyst at trendwatching.com