Inside the ‘Spiritual Fitbit’

Can an app measure how close you feel to God? Can it get you closer? /

University of Connecticut sociologist Brad Wright wants to experiment on your soul. Or at least measure it.

You may have seen his cover story in Christianity Today last summer about an experiment he ran on whether churches are biased in welcoming ethnic and racial minorities. Or his article a year earlier on whether employers discriminate against religious job applicants. Or his 2011 piece on whether Americans dislike evangelicals.

Since 2012, Wright has been working on SoulPulse, an iPhone app that surveys its users about their activities and spiritual experiences. “We’re trying to figure out how religion and spirituality operate in the contours of everyday life, as it’s experienced,” he said. “In a laboratory it’s hard to replicate everyday life.” Traditional telephone surveys can result in unnatural responses, too. But the rise of fitness trackers on our wrists and smartphones has made us more open to micro-surveys and check-ins—and more hungry for data about ourselves.

The Behemoth interviewed Wright after his SoulPulse team issued its first report on daily fluctuations in spirituality.

Measuring spiritual fluctuations sounds tricky. What is it you’re actually tracking?

We have different approaches to get at “God engagement.” The question we ask users the most is simply to rate their agreement with the statement “I’m aware of God at this moment.” A score of 1 is “not much” and a score of 100 is “very much.” We ask that every single survey, and it’s what we focus on in this first report.

We’ve also used a number of other measurements. On SoulPulse, you always get “I’m aware of God at this moment.” Eighty percent of the time you get “What are you doing now?” And 25 percent of the time you get questions from the Daily Spiritual Experiences Scale. It’s what the General Social Survey uses, so it has street cred with sociologists. It has ten measurements, including “I feel close to God” and “I feel God’s presence.” It’s a little more experiential where the one we’re asking is a little more cognitive.

I see in the data here some entries for 2 a.m.! Are you pinging people in the middle of the night to say, “Hey, wake up! Are you happy right now?”

No, we’d get “No, please leave me alone!” We let people tell us when they want to start receiving the surveys and when they want to stop. So somebody working the swing shift or otherwise up late is telling us that we should send them texts at those times. We don’t get many between one and six in the morning, but there are some.

And the survey runs for just two weeks?

We initially started off planning to survey once or twice a day for a month. Our beta testers came back and said, “A month is a really long time.” There’s a tradeoff: you want it to run as long as possible where people are still answering.

I’m curious about the effect the survey itself has on spirituality. There’s a line in The New Yorker piece about SoulPulse that says, “I had never felt the observer effect—in which a subject changes her behavior as a result of feeling watched—so strongly. … Being asked so often to look for God’s presence made me want to be more aware of it.” A number of researchers have looked at religious priming, showing you can change people’s behavior and attitudes even by implicitly referencing religion. Is that a downside of a survey like this? Is it an upside?

There are two ways we can think about that. I do think it’s interesting that people change their behavior in response to prompts. And lo and behold, it works here. God scores go up significantly during the course of the study in almost a linear fashion—not a tremendous amount, but in small, significant amounts. So in that sense, there’s something to this whole priming stuff. And that might give us insight into helping people be better Christians. There’s something about reminding people.

In terms of methodology, we can always add “day of study” as a control variable. So you can control for the exposure effect by adding a control measure of how much exposure they’ve had. So it is kind of a simple methodological fix.

But then after a few weeks a survey like this stops being as beneficial to the user?

When we started this, we thought this we were going to be a spiritual Fitbit. This was going to be so cool. We developed an app to measure and monitor this stuff for people who want to continue to keep a quantitative eye on these spiritual fluctuations. But we just can’t get it to something that even we want to use. And we’ve tried so hard. We’ve let people pick their own SoulPulse questions. We’ve picked questions that Dallas Willard says you should ask yourself every day for spiritual formation. We had a social thing where people could remind you or see how you’re doing. None of it got traction.

So now I think the mechanism is that I give you two weeks of information about yourself to motivate you to give me two weeks of data. The payoff in terms of helping people be better Christians (or better people, this isn’t necessarily just for Christians) is the analysis and writing we do with the data we collect. Let’s learn about the population and then teach people instead of helping them learn about themselves using these measures. I’m not shutting the door forever on the Fitbit idea. But we couldn’t figure it out and we put a lot of time into it.

That’s interesting, because one of the responses I hear when I tell people about SoulPulse is concern that it will encourage spiritual navel-gazing. That by focusing on our sense of God's presence, it might encourage us to think the core of the faith is about feeling God. Since the heart of Christian faith is about loving God and neighbor, a spiritual discipline that moves us inward instead of outward goes the wrong way. But what I’m hearing you say is that SoulPulse itself has become more outward-focused, where the point is to contribute to a body of knowledge more than to monitor where or when you experience God in your daily life.

We haven’t gotten that much criticism, if any. I just read Richard Foster’s Streams of Living Water. And I loved his chapter on incarnational Christianity. If you want to make a difference in the world, get right with God. Being close to God is a very effective way of changing the world. But apart from that, inward focus is not an inherent property of our method; you can ask questions about outward focus. Are you irritated with others? Are you giving to others? Are you listening to the person you’re talking with? Some of the SoulPulse questions ask how you’re treating other people.

Well, speaking of the actual questions, let’s get to some of the initial findings! I notice here that several of the activities that correlate with a low “God awareness score” are things you do on the computer: using the computer for work and playing computer games. I wonder if having an app…

Oh, there’s an irony!

Right? Maybe whatever priming effect the app is having toward increasing awareness of God is offset by the fact that it’s on a computer.

Destroying people’s God awareness! That’s funny. For me it was surprising to see how much time people spend in front of electronics. As I looked at the chart ranking the activities that correlate to high awareness, it seemed like over the last century people have moved away from the stuff at the top of the list and more toward the stuff at the bottom.

Well, yes, but it looks to me like walking isn’t so great.

It flip-flops. It’s helpful to distinguish walkers and walking. Walkers score low; walking scores high.

So the people who are most likely to walk regularly report less awareness of God. But everybody who walks, when they walk, feels more awareness.

Exactly. Walking is still a good idea. The people who walk the most tend to have the least change. So walkers have low awareness but walking makes you higher in terms of the score. So walking is a good idea for people.

Even for walkers. Walkers should still walk because when they walk, their scores go up.

Right. Except for the kind of people who walk the most. Maybe there’s a class issue there. I’m not sure. I don’t know how to explain the effect.

Do you see the same pattern for exercise?

We didn’t see a significant change for exercise, but the insignificant change we saw went in the same direction.

An even clearer example of what we’re talking about is watching the news. The kind of people who watch the news a lot feel closer to God. It might have a lot to do with age, because older people tend to report more awareness of God and they’re the people who still watch the six o’clock news. But watching the news is a terrifying experience—and it correlates with lower awareness of God. Fear is on the other side of the scale from awareness of God.

Praying is a double positive. People who pray a lot are closer to God. And when people pray, they feel closer to God.

Is housework connected to more awareness of God?

People who do housework, but not housework. There’s no effect for housework itself. What we’re probably looking at there is a gender effect, where women are more likely to report doing housework and more likely to report feeling close to God.

Hmm. Given the walking connection, I was wondering if there is a similar effect with other activities where your mind has the freedom to wander.

That explains some of it, I suppose. Reading is associated with higher scores. But you get lower scores with activities that usually have your full attention, like watching TV, working, playing video games, and even watching kids. If you’re watching little kids, you can’t do much else.

And then again you have the flip-flop. If you have kids, you have generally higher God awareness scores. But when you’re actually watching them, not so much.

Right. One key takeaway for this study is that the stuff between the stuff is really important. I tend to focus on scheduled activities. I don’t think, This is the day I’m going to walk, or, This is the day I’m going to talk to somebody, or, I’m going to read something tomorrow. I don’t have any goals for talking to people. I don’t plan my music listening. And yet these things seem to matter. I was surprised by how many different things mattered—a lot more than I thought would. And it’s all stuff I don’t really plan or have goals for.

What’s next for the SoulPulse study?

We just posted some results about sleep at The more people feel like they had “quality sleep,” the more they feel close to God. But there seems to be no effect when you look at the actual hours of sleep people got—the results are essentially the same for four or five hours of sleep as they are for nine or more hours.

But a larger answer is that I could support two dozen researchers working on this full time, each in their own specialty. Someone could look at the relationship between sleep and depression. Someone could look at the relationship between depression and spirituality, or between spirituality and social interactions. I have a million data points. There are a lot of stories to tell.

Brad Wright discusses more of his research at and tweets @bradley_wright.

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