Welcome to part 2 of the QS book on mood tracking that Robin Barooah and I wrote. This chapter walks through the various ways of measuring mood. Please enjoy, and share anything we’ve missed in the comments!
How Is Mood Measured?
When someone asks you how you’re feeling, how do you reply? With a number? A color? A dot on a two-axis grid? Probably not. Chances are, you answer with words, incorporating body language, facial expressions, and maybe a verbal description of events that led to your current mood.
The person who asked you pieces all that together into a reasonable idea in their own mind of how you must be feeling. But how can that idea be captured, recorded, compared to other people’s moods, or even to your earlier moods? Are there standard, reproducible ways to measure mood that are both widely applicable and personally relevant?
The answer is… maybe. Many attempts have been made to quantify mood, from psychological assessments to online color palettes to analyses of phone conversations. We’ll explore them here, and discuss some of the ongoing debates. Think of it as a journey through the wild landscape of the mood tracking space.
POMS (Profile of Mood States) – the gold standard
If you’re looking for a psychological assessment for measuring mood fluctuations that is used in clinical and research settings, POMS is your answer. The assessment consists of 65 emotion adjectives that are each rated on a five-point scale, where 0= not at all; 1=a little; 2=moderately; 3=quite a bit; and 4=extremely. The answers are then grouped into seven dimensions to give you an overview of your mood state:
A second form of POMS has also been developed specifically for looking at Bipolar Disorder. The dimensions are slightly different:
The downside of POMS is that the questions are not freely available, and you have to be a qualified psychological professional to order them.
Circumplex vs. Evaluative Space Model – are positive and negative moods opposite?
There is some debate among psychologists whether happiness and sadness are opposites on a spectrum or can exist concurrently. Can you be happy and sad at the same time?
The circumplex camp says no. They arrange emotions on a two-dimensional grid, with one axis moving from pleasantness to unpleasantness, also called valence, and the other axis moving from activation to deactivation, also called arousal. Depending on how positive and how energetic you feel, you should be able to place a dot on an appropriate part of the grid to record your current mood, and notice how the dots move around over time.
The evaluative space camp disagrees. They argue that while emotions are often experienced as opposites, there are situations or times in life when people experience both happiness and sadness. According to this model, you should measure your positive and negative emotions separately.
There have also been studies showing that different individuals have different ways of experiencing emotions. Some people experience a strong opposite effect, others can have multiple emotions at the same time that fluctuate independently, and still others have emotions that do depend on each other but not in an opposite way. So it’s not clear that there is a single method that will work for everyone.
The fact that scientists disagree on fundamental questions such as whether we can experience more than one mood at the same time, or whether we even all experience moods in the same way, is a major reason why we believe this area is so ripe for self-experimentation. Each of us has access to our own individual experience in a way that no scientist does, and we can answer these questions for ourselves and make use of the knowledge we gain, confident that what we’ve discovered applies to us.
Mood Scoring – Moodscope
For the numerically inclined, one quick way to get a daily number for your mood is to use the PANAS-based app Moodscope. PANAS stands for Positive Affect Negative Affect Schedule. Moodscope’s adaptation of the PANAS consists of ten questions for positive affect, or mood, and ten questions for negative affect, on a 0-3 scale. The scores are then combined into one number that represents your overall mood percentage, where 100% is extremely positive and 0% is extremely negative.
At Moodscope, you rate your mood once a day and are given graphs to see how it is changing over time. The questions are presented as cards, to make it fun and to increase the accuracy of your answers by introducing a bit of extra time to stop and reflect. What the cards and graphs look like are shown below.
Measuring your mood once a day is a great start, but you may find that you want a more nuanced view of how your moods change within a day. Moodscope also allows sharing your mood with a friend for support, and lets you add descriptive words and comments to each measurement. We’ll discuss sharing mood in Chapter Four.
Artistic Expression – Moodjam
In common language, people sometimes describe their moods in color, like “I’m feeling blue.” Ian Li, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, built an app that takes that a step further. It’s called Moodjam, and it lets you choose up to ten colors to represent your mood at any time of day, annotate it, and share it publicly if you like.
The act of pausing to look inward and choose colors and words to describe how you’re feeling can be an inspiring, releasing part of your day. The result is a beautiful visual representation of your mood over time. Here’s what it looks like to record a mood and to see moods of other people at Moodjam.
Text Analysis – 750 words
Perhaps the most traditional way of recording mood as part of life events is to keep some kind of written journal or diary. The practice of writing free-flowing text can be cathartic and insightful. A modern version of the daily journal is a web app called 750 words. A beautifully simple interface encourages you to write 750 words every day, which are completely private.
One benefit of an online journal is that the text can be analyzed. 750 words uses sentiment analysis to break down what common moods or thoughts your chosen words reveal. Looking at the charts can give you new clues about what your typical thoughts are. However, the primary benefit may still be just in the act of writing, allowing your subconscious to find patterns and your intuition to develop.
Emotional Stroop Test
As it turns out, there is also a cognitive measurement that can objectively detect different emotions being experienced by a person. If you’ve ever seen those cognitive tests where the word “blue” is written in the color red, and you have to name the color instead of reading the word, that’s a Stroop test.
The emotional version of the Stroop test is to show people a series of words, some of which are emotional, and ask them to name the color of the word when it appears. If a person is feeling anxious, they will delay slightly before naming the color of the word “anxiety” compared to naming the color of an emotion they’re not experiencing or a non-emotional word. The delay in the response time indicates the level of emotion. No online version of this test is currently available.
So these are some of the active ways of tracking mood, where your input is required in some way. There are also a few passive ways emerging that are worth noting.
Voice Analysis – Cogito Health
Researchers at MIT have discovered that analyzing the spectral and temporal patterns of voice conversations can identify depression or psychological distress. A company called Cogito Health is commercializing this technology to help call centers become more effective as well as track behavioral health at a population level.
Presumably, the same technology could be made available to individuals to monitor their own phone calls. Imagine talking to a friend by phone and getting a text message signaling you that she is depressed, even if you can’t necessarily tell by the way she is talking. Faking a cheerful mood with each other would become more challenging! And you might become more empathetic friends.
Facial Recognition and Skin Conductance – Affectiva
What about measuring emotional states just by looking at people’s faces, or detecting arousal from skin conductance? Affectiva is a company working on both of these methods. Their Affdex system uses webcams to measure people’s reactions to marketing campaigns, as a way to detect whether consumers are engaged, surprised, confused, or turned off by their ads. A very commercial application to begin with, but a system like this made available to individuals could help you figure out things like whether checking email always leaves you in distress, especially when your cranky Aunt Edna writes to you.
Affectiva’s other product is called Q Sensor. It’s a wireless wristband that detects electrical activity on your skin as you go about your day. High activity means you’re excited or anxious, low activity means you’re bored or relaxed. It is currently being used for clinical and academic research, and is prohibitively expensive for many individuals, but it’s a fascinating signal of what’s coming down the road. One fascinating application is helping people with autism to communicate their internal states. Instead of seeming perfectly calm and then erupting into an unexpected meltdown, autistic individuals can use the Q Sensor to show their caregiver the rising stress level they feel well before meltdown occurs, and the caregiver is able to intervene with calming activities or a change in environment.
Music Patterns – Last.fm
The music we choose to listen to, and whether we choose to listen to music or not, can be other good indicators of how we’re feeling. At a Quantified Self meetup in Amsterdam, Remko Siemerink described how he discovered a pattern of listening to music intensely when he’s feeling good, and not listening to music when he is feeling depressed, usually in the summer.
Last.fm is an online radio station that tracks all the music you listen to, and provides an API for external services like LastGraph to display your music listening habits over time as beautiful charts. It could be a useful proxy for measuring mood.
Robin, one of the authors of this book, has been tracking his meditation practice for the past 3 years. His main goal in doing this was to help him get into the habit of a regular daily meditation practice. Unexpectedly, this turned out to be a rich source of information about his mood.
“I discovered that the periods of time when I wasn’t meditating corresponded with times when I was suffering from depression. These were long gaps, of a month or more, and it was very easy to remember how I’d been feeling and what was going on in my life during those times. I could see that the gaps corresponded with life events that altered my routines of work and connection with friends.
The surprise for me was that looking at the simple long term pattern of my meditation practice provided me with insights about major changes in my mood that I couldn’t see from looking at my daily mood diary.
I’ve now learned that skipping meditation for more than a couple of days is generally a warning sign that I’m at risk of falling into a depression. Medicine is starting to recognize meditation as one of the most effective treatments for depression, so it’s likely that the meditation itself is protecting me. Tracking helped me to see how disruption in my life both brought on depression and disrupted my meditation practice at the same time.
Since learning this, I’ve been able to take action when I start to notice the pattern – both by making meditation more of a priority in times of stress, and by recognizing that a few days of missed meditations means that I need to be more gentle with myself as I adapt to change.
I’ve known for a long time that meditation was very helpful for depression, but it wasn’t until I saw my pattern for myself that I really understood how important it was in my own life.”
These last two examples illustrate how behavior can be an indirect way to investigate mood, and how different methods of tracking can provide us with different kinds of insights. They also show how we can learn different things about our mood depending on the timescale we are looking at. It’s possible that you’re already doing something that could give you insight into your mood if you tracked it – maybe how often you shower, or how many text messages you send at what times, or your patterns of food consumption.
Whatever method you choose, whether active or passive, clinical or colorful, it helps to know how to go about using the tool. In the following chapters we’ll share some principles for how to think about mood tracking to maximize benefit to your life, followed by practical details for getting started.