Media Lab to Launch Wellness Initiative with $1 Million Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Grant

By Alexandra Kahn

The MIT Media Lab this week launched a wellness initiative designed to spark innovation in the area of health and wellbeing, and to promote healthier workplace and lifestyle behaviors.  

With support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), which is providing a $1 million grant, the new initiative will address the role of technology in shaping our health, and explore new approaches and solutions to wellbeing. The program is built around education and student mentoring; prototyping tools and technologies that support physical, mental, social, and emotional wellbeing; and community initiatives that will originate at the Media Lab, but be designed to scale.

The program begins with the fall course "Tools for Well Being," followed by "Health Change Lab" in the spring. In addition to concept and technology development, these courses will feature seminars by noted experts who will address a wide range of topics related to wellness. These talks will be open to the public, and made available online. Speakers will include Walter Willett, a physician and noted nutrition researcher; Chuck Czeisler, a physician and sleep expert; Ben Sawyer, a game developer for health applications; Matthew Nock, an expert in suicide prevention; Dinesh John, a researcher on health sciences and workplace activity; Lisa Mosconi, a neuroscientist studying the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease; and Martin Seligman, a founder of the field of positive psychology. More information about the courses, speakers, and presentation topics and dates can be found at:

The RWJF grant will also support five graduate-level research fellows from the Program in Media Arts and Sciences who will be part of a year-long training program. The funding will enable each fellow to design, build, and deploy novel tools to promote wellbeing and health behavior change at the Media Lab, and then at scale.

One of the significant ways that this program will impact Media Lab culture is in the review of all thesis proposals submitted by students in media arts and sciences. Media Lab faculty recently added a new requirement that all proposals consider the impact of the work on human wellbeing.

Other Media Lab-wide aspects of the initiative include:

  • A monthly health challenge that would engage the entire lab, with review and analysis of each month's deployment to help inform the next month's initiative.
  • Pairing students with one another — to build awareness of wellbeing as a social function, not just a perosonal goal, and to draw on people’s inclination to solve the problems of others differently than their own.

“Wellbeing is a very hard problem that has yet to be solved by psychologists, psychiatrists, neuroscientists, biologists or other experts in the scientific community,” says Rosalind Picard, a professor of media arts and sciences and one of the three principal investigators on the initiative. “It’s time to bring MIT ingenuity to the challenge.”

“RWJF is working to build a culture of health in the U.S. where all people have opportunities to make healthy choices and lead healthy lifestyles. Technology has long shaped the patterns of everyday life, and it is these patterns­ — of how we work, eat, sleep, socialize, recreate and get from place to place — that largely determine our health,” says Stephen Downs, chief technology and information officer at RWJF. “We’re excited to see the Media Lab turn its creative talents and its significant influence to the challenge of developing technologies that will make these patterns of everyday life more healthy.”

Along with Picard, the other two principal investigators on the Advancing Wellness initiative are Pattie Maes, the Alex W. Dreyfoos Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, and Kevin Slavin, an assistant professor of media arts and sciences.

PhD student Karthik Dinakar, a Reid Hoffman Fellow at the Media Lab, will co-teach the two courses with the three principal investigators. Susan Silbey, the Leon and Anne Goldberg Professor of Humanities, Sociology and Anthropology, will also create independent assessments through the year on the impact of this project.

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