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What makes you happier? A new app wants to know

photo by karen pike

When you cruise around Boston in a Mini Cooper emblazoned with the question “What makes you happier?” on its rear end, you’re going to get feedback.

At least that’s been the experience of Nataly Kogan. As a Russian Jewish immigrant who’s experienced her share of unhappiness — and with a grandfather who doesn’t even understand happiness as a goal — Kogan (right) may seem like an unlikely ambassador of joy.

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And yet, as the founder of the Boston-based Happier Inc., a firm with $2.4 million in venture capital funding, she may be precisely the right person to ponder what may be America’s trendiest emotional state. Kogan, 37, has been chasing it since she and her parents fled the Soviet Union in 1989 and moved to Detroit. She was 13 and so poor she survived on donated Rice Krispies, and so eager to stop the teasing at school that she adopted Alyssa Milano — “Samantha” on ABC’s “Who’s the Boss?” — as a role model.

Happier’s first product is a free app on which users share their own happy moments and read about other people’s small bites of cheer. The pleasure of an iced coffee. The sound of rain on a skylight. An unexpectedly interesting conversation with a phone-store employee.

The seemingly simple idea is based on research that shows that focusing on the positive, and sharing good things, makes people not just happier, but healthier. (No word yet on whether scrolling through Facebook’s brag-fest reduces life expectancy.)

But back to the Mini Cooper. “Sometimes I’ll be standing at a gas station and some guy will give my car the once-over,” said Kogan, of Newton. “You get the skeptics. Some ask, ‘Are you going to pay my rent?’ or ‘Are you telling me I don’t need to go to work today?’ ”

So far the app’s users have supported each other with more than one million “smiles.” That’s Happier’s version of the Facebook “like.” Indeed, Happier is not a place to boast about how happy your fill-in-the-blank achievement makes you, but rather to recognize and capture the small bursts of nice that can make for a happy day.

“Some people immediately have 27 billion answers about what makes them happy,” Kogan said, “and some people sit there and really think — it’s this deep philosophical question and they feel like they need one answer.”

“But,” she explained, “that’s the whole point. There isn’t one thing. You are not chasing one ideal state of happy with a capital ‘H.’ ”

Beth Teitell can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.
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