Tag Archives: mood
Today’s post comes to us from Dana Greenfield. We asked Dana and the great QS scholar and thinker, Whitney Erin Boesel, to lead a breakout session on tracking grief and mood at the 2014 Quantified Self Europe Conference. Mood tracking is common in the QS community, and both Dana and Whitney have extensive experiences attempting to use pre-made tools to track mood. However, both were struck by the design of many current mood trackers to emphasize happiness and positivity above all else. This breakout session invited participants to come together and discuss what happens when grief and mood tracking collide. What should be tracked and what does it mean? You’re invited to read Dana’s description of the session below and then join the discussion on the QS Forum.
Tracking Grief & Mood
by Dana Greenfield
This breakout session followed my opening plenary talk, where I presented early reflections on a work-in-progress: a memory/grief/lifelogging project cataloging the experience of the recent loss of my mother. Using a google form, to log what I called “mom sightings”, I wanted to explore mood tracking where the aim is not to be rid of sadness, and life-logging, and where the aim is to log something other than my self, my fuzzy relation to and recollection of my mom. What started as a project to make something out of this collection (a data visualization as memorial of sorts), became something almost therapeutic and reflective through the process of tracking and re-remembering itself.
I convened this breakout session with Whitney Erin Boesel to open a discussion on mood tracking for when you’re not aiming to optimize your emotional life, when different shades of sorrow are acknowledged as part of being human. I thought we might hear about and share stories of using different mood tracking tools, their capabilities and limitations. Instead, the conversation opened up with many people sharing their experiences with devastating loss and the grieving process, outside of tracking. The diverse crowd included a few mood trackers, but many of us had experienced loss, some very recently. We shared the passings of mentors, fathers, mothers, best friends, pets, and partners to both disease and divorce.
It turns out grief is a great entry point for exploring the meaning of personal data collection and analysis, from collecting as artistic expression to the role of social media in death.
We began wondering whether quantified self tactics were even appropriate for grief. For some, mourning found expression in art, like painting, which enables the flow of emotion and experience through color and open-ended form, resolving in release and relief. Creating artwork out of the remnants of a loved-ones life, on the other hand, enabled one woman to relive memories stored in an attic. While the process of handling and cataloging such artifacts was exhausting, it enabled her to construct something new. In her case, she logged all the items of her childhood home into a digital archive, finding joy and humor in her mothers eye-glasses collection, for example. Unlike her ongoing mood tracking, artistic work “helped me to deal with that [loss], and gradually let go of her.”
Others also questioned the desire to quantify something like grief and the complexity of human emotion. For one long-time tracker, the sudden loss of his father was represented by an absence in his data, an interruption to the flow of life. While grief was seen at the ‘edge’ of what we might want to or be able to quantify, some pointed out that much of “non-verbal, non-conceptualized’ human experience resisted quantification or even true representation. As one person put it: “When clearing the house of someone who died we suddenly realized there is no such rose-bud moment. The numbers aren’t really less than the other things, like… the other remnants of people’s past…it’s just another way of reconstructing something that is not there.” In other words, we collect, we track, we quantify, but is there some kernel of truth at the center? or is truth–about someone’s life past or present–always under re-construction in the act of counting and re-counting?
This question of the tracked and truth came up again when we discussed the difficulties of death on social media. How do we negotiate memorializing as well as forgetting in digital spaces? One response: “it’s been an issue in social media from the beginning. It’s nearly impossible to express other feelings than professional coolness–you’re allowed to rant or to troll people but not to express fear or things like that.” On the other hand. Whitney shared the story of friend who committed suicide, and the partner asked for the page to not be turned into a memorial site, because then it would be frozen. Another participant was disturbed over tweets to a dead man on his birthday; his wife, it turned out, had an ongoing relationship with her deceased husband on twitter. For a woman who lost a close friend, social media was a useful arena to be open about her grief, make it more visible.
I started to think of the ways we can empathy hack social media when someone asked “As we have more data and more stuff that’s reflecting us, can [death] continue to be hidden?” But now I wonder, does visibility of the data of death make us more open and vulnerable to each other, or might it desensitize? What are the implications of Facebook’s death toll? When my mother passed, I was told that my relationship to her doesn’t end because she is gone–the social media afterlife gives this sentiment a whole new meaning.
Memory and memorialization get complicated with our increasing data exhaust. For many, the tools of QS enhance memory, as the life is archived, but with death in the connected age and in social media, do we want to remember everything? And, do we have a right to forget or be forgotten? My work was specifically private, perhaps in contradistinction to a loss that was very public in our small community, and I wondered what remembering as an imperfect low fidelity practice did for me in itself. Some in the group asked me if tracking my grief, my memories enhanced the pain, if it let me linger in it too much. I wasn’t sure. For many in the room, there was a place for remembering but then putting away, enabling life to get on with itself. For some the CD-ROM was the container; for me, the spreadsheet.
One hypothesis: “Tracking could be not just a desire not to forget but the need to forget.”
There is a tradition in anthropology of using other value systems as “good to think with,” as ways to imagine our own worlds and practices as otherwise. So in a world in which automatic tracking enables, even encourages the exhaustively remembered and logged-life, we might look to other places and peoples to remind ourselves that forgetting has its place too. Anthropologist Josh Berson offered us one such space:
“You can look at certain parts of indigenous Australia, where intense grief, during mourning is coupled with an institutionalized practice of avoidance of references to the dead person….you find [a trigger warning] at the beginning of practically any literature where indigenous australians might be exposed to where they might see images of people whom they know who are now dead. So it is possible to imagine a healthy form of grieving which is at the same time coupled to a deep respect for forgetting, institutionalization of a very shallow sense of the historical past.”
By shallow, Berson doesn’t mean trivial; rather, he suggests a qualitatively different relationship to time and memory. We left our discussion without resolving these tensions between logging, memorializing, and letting go. I was so grateful and glad for that. Grief, like it so often does, turns what seems like emptiness into an opening.
If you’re interested in grief and mood tracking we invite you to head to our forum to join the discussion on the QS Forum.
When we host our Quantified Self Conferences we put a lot of effort into our plenary sessions. Those sessions open and close each day and they’re the only time that all the attendees are together to listen and learn from speakers and presenters. Our opening plenary is especially important to us. It sets the stage and tone for the conference and we take special care to make sure it puts people in the frame of mind we encourage for the conference. One of being open, thoughtful, and ready to experience all the different parts of our lives that QS can touch.
Today we’re posting our first opening plenary talk, Leaning Into Grief, by Dana Greenfield. We heard about Dana’s self-tracking story just a few weeks before the conference. She mentioned that she was using different methods to help her track her grief after her mother passed away in February of this year. We knew then that this was a special project, something that would help our community understand how self-tracking can go far beyond seemingly simple things like step tracking and reach into our lives to help us understand deeper parts of ourselves. We invite you to watch Dana’s talk and read the transcript below. We hope you enjoy it and learn from it as much as we did.
Starting when I was about 14 years old, my mother began a gifting tradition, imposing upon me a collection of small Hungarian porcelain figurines: ‘So you’ll have something to remember me by’, she would say, rather darkly.
She somehow knew she’d die before she was 65 and lived pretty intensely as a result. The gestures were sort of light hearted, but also pointed to her deep discomfort with her legacy. We would have teenage quarrels with her about the gifts–that they were affected sentimentality, a false set of memories…some things you can’t force. But she tried.
These morbid birthday gifts stand less for her role in my life and more for her anxieties around mortality, remembrance, and being a good enough mother. But her fears didn’t paralyze her. Rather, she lived more in a day than most did in a week. She was a surgeon, professor, researcher, entrepreneur, blogger, tennis player, and mentor to many, including me, a medical student myself.
In September, fit and healthy, and with so much left to offer, she mysteriously fell down stairs resulting in a major head trauma. After 6 months in the hospital, her coma was upgraded to a persistent vegetative state–she would never wake up, a strong body divorced from its once formidable mind.
She ultimately passed on in February. But she was really gone the moment she fell. Then, I began to move through life differently, and I wanted to capture it. I knew that the early experiences I was having with this acute loss would change, evolve, deepen or maybe disappear.
Like when I would reach to call her about an article I read, or about a lecture I just heard. Taking a beat to remember she no longer exists. The world implodes for just an instant. I also wanted to track how I felt. Perhaps it was because I desperately hoped it would change, that I could watch myself crawl out of the despair and anxiety of the early days in the intensive care unit. But I also wanted to concretize her legacy in my life. Along with those wincing moments where her absence is acutely felt, I wanted to watch those crushing moments soften to fond memories.
So– what did I do? For a while I kept a journal with 750 words and tried to use its metadata function, to track things like anxiety or memories or place. I also dabbled with some mood tracking. But they just didn’t quite fit. Mood tracking seems to assume that you want to track away the sadness. But grief is not pathological. It’s just hard. A journal was helpful but it required setting aside a time of day–it didn’t help me catch the kinds of ephemeral moments that I encountered in the context and natural flow of my life.
Then I had a bit of a breakthrough. At one of the QS meetups, one of the presenters talked about an early spreadsheet based project where she used a google form on her phone to track on the go. Just by creating a link to a custom made Google Form, i could make my own kind of app, a dedicated place to go to log my experiences with memory and loss. “Mobilizing” my project enabled me to track these experiences as I met them. Pausing just for a moment for each one. I called it “leaning into grief” because instead of compartmentalizing, I was moving through the experience of loss, giving it more space to work itself out in my life. I keep editing the form as I go, but right now it has 4 simple questions:
1. The first I call “mom sightings” where I can choose what kind of encounter i had with her (a sight, sound, smell, memory, topic of conversation,).
2. Second, I have a comments box. Here, I thought I would just write one or two words to mark the event: new bicycle or grant writing. But it turns out that the text box became an invitation to pause, reflect, and go deeper into the memory, the feeling or experience. I end up micro-journaling for just a few sentences. Not only have I been marking the most immediate impression of the moment, but I find myself exploring it further, fleshing out the imagery or events, reminding myself of more that was past that seemed hidden.
3. Third, I mark the location– at home, in transit, in a café?
4. Last, I choose the mood or affect. Importantly, I structured the form to allow me to choose more than one at a time. Grief is strange and special in that you can experience multiple, seemingly incongruent emotions at the same time. I am often nostalgic, sad, lonely, angry, anxious, as well as happy. More so, creating my own form allowed me to name my moods myself, trying as best I could to pin point what I felt. I find I’m often “warmed,” which, for me, is like feeling fond and grateful at the same time.
Finally, while I can’t put photos in a google form, i use flickr to have a dedicated app to log places or things that accompany my sightings. And I added moves to help me with location. The idea is to both visually and viscerally capture the effects things, people, places, and conversations have on eliciting my mother’s place in my life.
Have I learned anything? I’m not sure. I know I’ve experienced life and loss differently as a result. I know that I have given myself the time and the space to hold on to a fleeting and biting memory, explore it, cherish it, and then place it away in my growing archive. There has been something therapeutic in that.
The kinds of things I’ve logged have been as silly as a q-tip (providing flashbacks to her clinic) or as serious as a holiday. I’m sure if I had my brother and sister do the same thing, they would have tracked a completely different mom.
The aim is not to capture a true facsimile of her life. It’s almost the opposite. My hope is to track her in relation to me, or perhaps it’s me in relation to her. That is, a self that is porous to others, constituted through others, and essentially vulnerable to the ways that others impress themselves in our lives and minds. Here, the other–my mother–is not a static variable. She still morphs and changes through my recollection and reflection with her. She still has a very real impact on my life. Logging it in this way just brings that very explicitly and directly to the fore.
Following the funeral, so many of our friends came to our side and promised: ‘she will live on in you’. At first it’s not really what you want to hear–it’s just not good enough. What you really want is a time machine.
Wondering how to hold tight to her memory, I would spend time in her basement office, meditating over her huge collection of books, files, multiple white boards and notebooks and calendars, awards, and gifts from patients. I thought–there must be a way to capture it all. she had already left such a profound footprint in the world—between her websites and students and patients. How could we make it last a bit longer?
I would then go to my childhood room and stare at my Herend collection–the tiny lovely animals and boxes that sat, kind of pointlessly there. I had a secret wish that I hadn’t resented these gifts, that I had catalogued each one, as if they were an accession in an archive–which birthday? was it snowing? what was my reaction? But perhaps they have more meaning as a fuzzy aggregate, standing for something she desired—to be remembered, cherished.
But her real legacy is in my daily life–when I have a hard time writing an essay or grant because she was my first and last editor. Or coming across the practice sutures she gifted me to help me become a surgeon. Wherever I go, there she is. On a daily basis she catches me off-guard, popping in and out of my life with little clues and cues. That’s the legacy that matters.
I am at the beginning of this lives-logging project. Its results are largely still unknown. Maybe I will see a trend in affect with location or affect over time. Maybe I will be able to visualize my anger and longing ripen into warmth and gratitude.
Or, perhaps I’m writing the data now but reading them never. But so far, it seems that each writing and logging is a reading and re-reading of sorts, enabling a moment of interpersonal and intergenerational exchange that remains far more fragile, malleable, full of potential and, therefore, more meaningful than the memorabilia on my shelf or the spreadsheet.
Katrina Rodzon thought she was a relatively healthy person until she realized that seemingly disconnected symptoms pointed towards something real, a gluten intolerance. She took this hunch and decided to test it out using a simple elimination diet along with tracking her weight and subjective bloating and mood ratings. Watch her great talk from our 2013 Global Conference to find out what she learned.
How can I lead a happier life? I’m sure this is something we’ve all asked ourselves. Maybe it was during a turn through doldrums or maybe you asked yourself how you could sustain your happiness during a moment of joy. Whatever the case happiness, and by extension mood tracking, has been at the forefront of engaging in a Quantified Self practice for many individuals.
Konstanin Augemberg is no exception. A statistician by trade, Konstantin has been involved with numerous self-tracking projects in order to “empirically demonstrate that any aspect of my everyday life can be quantified and logged on a regular basis, and that the knowledge from these numbers can be used to help me live better.” In February Konstanin presented the methods and results of his ongoing Hacking Happiness project at the New York City QS Meetup (read on for a full description):
Welcome to the sixth and final part of the QS book on mood tracking that Robin Barooah and I wrote. This chapter has some thoughts on what the future of mood tracking might look like. Thanks for being on this journey with us!
At this point, you should have a good understanding of the nuances and methods of tracking mood. You could stop reading here and be well-versed and ready to go. If you want a peek into some possible new ways to track mood in future, read on.
Passive Body Position and Movement
What if your mood could be measured without you having to do anything or enter any data? Would this be helpful, or is the act of reflecting on your mood the useful part? We mentioned a few existing examples earlier, like tracking what music you listen to, and your voice patterns. Here are a few other efforts happening:
A sensor called LUMOback can be stuck on your back to detect your posture throughout the day and report to you via your smartphone if you are slouching. They don’t specifically talk about mood tracking as an application for this, but posture is a known sign of mood. When we’re depressed, we don’t stand up tall.
Other experimental ways to passively capture mood include keystroke logging, which involves detecting how quickly and actively you are typing on your keyboard, and using your webcam to take random pictures or continuous video of yourself while you’re at your computer. Moritz Stefaner did a project in which he automated hourly webcam pictures of himself. He then had 13585 of the pictures analyzed for mood, with the following result.
A lot of his “sad” photos are really just him concentrating, mislabeled as sadness. but Moritz’s project shows the potential power of the cheap, universally available webcam as a passive mood tracking device.
Reverse Mood Tracking
A fascinating way of using mood tracking in a clinical setting has been pioneered by Dr. Alan Greene. He was kind enough to share his story with us here:
“Most mood trackers I know tend to notice, record, and track their moods in order to gain insights about themselves. I’ve come to also do the reverse: track my moods to gain insight about others.
It all started when I walked through a door.
Welcome to part 5 of the QS book on mood tracking that Robin Barooah and I wrote. This chapter has some tips that we’ve found helpful for getting started with mood tracking. Enjoy!
Once you’ve been tracking mood for a while, and have a good baseline established, it’s time to play. What if you could influence the factors that shape your mood? What if you had a trusted buddy to confide in, to make your tracking more robust? If we know ourselves better, we can make choices that help us to make the most of our lives. We’ll explore how and why to experiment with and share your mood in this chapter.
There’s a concept called heutagogy that applies nicely to self-tracking activities. Heutagogy is basically the idea that people direct their own learning, using personal experiences to update their models of themselves and the world around them. Stewart Hase and Chris Kenyon, who came up the term, write that “people only change in response to a very clear need… involving confusion, dissonance, fear, or intense desire.”
At Quantified Self, we usually see intense desire as a motivator, but fear creeps in too, often for health concerns. If you do want to change your mood, it’s helpful to know how others with similar motivations have gone about doing it, to get some ideas and approaches to adapt to your needs.
Welcome to part 4 of the QS book on mood tracking that Robin Barooah and I wrote. This chapter has some tips that we’ve found helpful for getting started with mood tracking. Enjoy!
The excitement of starting a tracking project can lead to a classic newbie behavior of tracking too many things at once. This can get tiring and confusing, so it’s important to be mindful of keeping it simple and not overdoing it. This chapter offers some tips and insights for getting started with the practicalities of mood tracking.
Keep it Simple
Ernesto Ramirez of Quantified Self Labs wrote a “QS 101” post on lessons learned from self-tracking:
“Lesson #1: Something is better than nothing. Engaging yourself in some experiment, no matter how flawed it may be, is better than never starting. The best way to learn is to do. So go out and do something!
Lesson #2: When you decide to start something, try and do the simplest thing that you think might give you some insight. It’s great to have ambitious ideas, but keeping it simple ensures your experiment is manageable.
Lesson #3: Mistakes are worthwhile. Some of our best knowledge comes from learning from our failures, so don’t be afraid of failing. By keeping it simple you also keep the mistakes small and manageable.
Lesson #4: Seek help from others. We have a great network of individuals around the world who are ready and willing to help you on your tracking journey. Find a Quantified Self meetup in your area and don’t be afraid to ask for help!”
Here is a brief roundup of some of the things we’ve either collected or written about tracking mood since we first started paying attention to mood tracking back in 2008.
Get Your Mood On
Alex Carmichael and Robin Barooah have recently completed work on an excellent book detailing their experiences and knowledge gained from years of mood tracking. We’ve already posted the first three chapters of their book and are excited to bring you more in the upcoming weeks.
- Why Measure Mood and How It Can Help
- How is Mood Measured?
- Preparing Your Mental State for Self-Tracking
- DIY Mood Tracking
- Mood Sharing and Experimentation
- Exploring the Future of Mood Tracking
Mood Tracking Show & Tell Talks
Mood tracking is also a popular presentation topic at our worldwide Meetup groups. Here are a few of the talks from the last year that discuss personal mood tracking projects.
- Remko Siemerink on Mood and Music: Remko Siemerink tells his personal story of health insights through accidental lifelogging. He has bipolar disorder, and has been using last.fm over the past 7 years to track his music listening and compare it with his friends’ music patterns.
- Marie Dupuch on Mood Tracking With Colors: Marie created a rating scale based on colors as a visual metric, and a self-reported quantifiable metric, to gauge her mood over periods of time. This led her to have more awareness and provided the information she needed to make confident choices in her own life.
- Erik Kennedy on Tracking Happiness: Erik was interested in what makes him happy so he started tracking it. After categorizing hundreds of events he shares what makes him happy, what doesn’t, and some very thoughtful takeaways.
Mood Measuring Tools
Here’s a list of some of the mood measuring tools we’ve covered in the past and used in our personal lives. This list is by no means complete so if you use a mood tracker we don’t mention be sure to add it in the comments!
- Moodscope: A simple online tracker and support system. Make sure to watch founder Jon Cousin’s show & tell talk about how and why he created Moodscope.
- Moodpanda: Track your mood online or with mobile apps (iOS and Android). Read our Toolmaker Talk with founder Ross Larter here.
- Expereal: A new visual mood rating and journal application. Read our Toolmaker Talk with founder Jonathan Cohen here.
- MoodJam: An online tool to track your mood using colors and keywords. Watch founder Ian Li talk about the latest version of MoodJam at a QS Pittsburgh Meetup.
The Science of Mood Measurement
For deeper background on the scholarly work and controversy about how mood is measured here’s a long post by QS Founder Gary Wolf: Measuring Mood: Current Research and New Ideas.
What do you do to track mood? What have you learned?
Welcome to part 3 of the QS book on mood tracking that Robin Barooah and I wrote. This chapter explains how to prepare for your self-tracking journey. We hope it helps you in your future tracking adventures!
Before you start tracking something new, there’s an important first step you can do to lay the groundwork for a rewarding self-tracking experience. How you approach tracking your mood and looking at your results can make a significant difference in what you end up learning from it. So in this chapter we’ll explore how to cultivate a helpful mindset, accept what you discover about yourself, and keep your mind and body open to building intuition.
Cultivate The Right Mindset
When you look in the mirror, what goes through your mind? Do you judge that part of your body that you just can’t bring yourself to like? Do you gush with warm appreciation? Do you notice something out of place and calmly adjust it or make a mental note to investigate?
It’s an interesting exercise to do on its own, noticing what thoughts you have when you see a reflection of yourself. According to several recent studies, a healthy mindset involves being mindful of your thoughts without jumping into problem-solving mode, and being kind to yourself.
If you think about self-tracking as a different kind of mirror, the same logic applies. What you record about yourself is actually a very personal reflection of your inner world, and so the kind of self that you bring to bear on it will influence what effect the information has on you. If you bring a judgmental mindset to looking at your data, you will feel like you’re being judged. If you bring a curious attitude to it, it may be easier to see new patterns in what you’ve collected.
Many of the activities that make up our fast-paced modern life are easier to handle if we can make quick decisions to get results based on patterns of judgment we’ve learned through personal experience. An important principle behind the training that professional scientists receive is to learn to step back from this routine mode of thinking and consider what the data could be telling them that they haven’t noticed before.
Because we’re not used to working this way in our daily routines, it’s easy to fall back on our normal problem solving methods, and in the case of mood this often includes self-judgement.
Of course, it’s easy for us to suggest avoiding a problem-solving mindset when looking at your data, but practically speaking, how can we change our own minds?
One thing we’ve found to be effective is to name some alternative mindsets that we can cultivate. These are mindsets that most of us have experienced at one time or another, and there is nothing mysterious about them. Often just remembering that there’s another way of looking at things is enough to find a different perspective.
Here are some of the attributes we’ve found helpful when cultivating a mindset for looking at our own data:
You might find yourself starting out with reflexive judgments when you start looking at your data. “How can I be depressed again? What’s wrong with me?” This approach can lead to a painful feeling of defeat, and sometimes people give up tracking entirely soon after they begin.
If this judgmental voice comes up in your head, redirecting it towards being realistic and pragmatic can help. For example, if you’ve been depressed for much of your life, it’s pragmatic to realize that simply by recording your mood, you’re learning something, as opposed to expecting an instant cure.
This attitude can also help you weather and understand the ups and downs you will find in your mood, without necessarily trying to optimize for being up all the time. Each mood can be respected for what it is without wanting to only be happy. Another consideration is that extreme moods may interfere with tracking, and this should be expected rather than considered to be a failure.
So, a mindset of clarity can help you be more gentle with yourself, as well as not delude yourself. It’s important to look at your empirical evidence carefully, in order to avoid flights of fantasy, and to not make up negative stories about yourself. The evidence for the conclusions you reach may be in the data, or may be in obvious life history that you can remember, but you want to make sure what you conclude is based on facts, not judgments.
When you see your data, a common reaction is to want to compare yourself to others. “I hope my moods aren’t the most wildly swinging ones in the office!” This is a competitive flavor of the unkind, judgmental voice that can lead to depression. When this voice comes up, just observe your data without judgment, be very kind and gentle to yourself, and get curious.
For example, you might want to ask questions like whether your moods correlate to things like sleep or exercise, as the Optimism iPhone app does:
Long-time self-trackers have an almost insatiable curiosity. When a really good or really bad mood day happens, the analytical mind kicks in to try to see patterns. Comparing this time to previous times that were similar in some way, we try to figure out possible variables. “I took extra vitamin D this morning” or “I haven’t seen people for two days.” Then we can test these variables and see if the high or low mood is reproducible.
A benefit of this kind of self-experimentation is that it’s personalized. Rather than relying only on scientific studies that look at population averages, you can start to tease out individual ways in which you respond to your internal and external environments that may be different from conventional wisdom. More on experimentation in Chapter Four.
Finally, a good baseline attitude for life in general is one of compassion. We’ve found that self-compassion is an essential part of maintaining a tracking practice. A good technique for increasing self-compassion is to think of all the people out there who are in the same situation as you – anxious about a job interview, stressed out from dealing with fighting kids, completely in love, whatever it is. Think kind thoughts towards them, and it will help you be kind to yourself. Your data is what it is, and it’s ok. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about.
Closely related to compassion when trying to make sense of data about our own lives is the idea of humility. In our experience, mood tracking can lead to powerful and helpful insights, but they don’t always come quickly. It’s an inevitable part of the process to be confused and to not have answers when we’re learning and exploring. The reality is that a lot of the time, we just don’t know what our tracking data means, and there’s no reason why we should.
Humor is another powerful tool for developing compassion, rather than taking yourself or your data too seriously. As the Buddhist saying goes, quoted by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, “Act always as if the future of the universe depends on what you do, and laugh at yourself for thinking that whatever you do makes any difference.”
Accept What You Discover
The practice of acceptance can be incredibly transformative. If you can accept yourself as you are, accept other people as they are, accept your data as it is, and accept situations around you, you will be free from secondary layers of emotion that prevent you from just dealing with whatever you need to deal with.
For example, let’s say you discover that every time you see your mother-in-law, you get angry followed by a week of depression. You have a choice here – layer frustration and resentment on top of the situation, or accept it and think about what your options are. Maybe you can talk to your spouse about finding a way to ease the trauma. It might not be as complex as you think to minimize the harm of the situation, but if you’re frustrated, you’re less likely to see the answer.
As Zen master Suzuki Roshi says, “It’s like putting a horse on top of a horse and then climbing on and trying to ride. Riding a horse is hard enough. Why add another horse?” Acceptance helps you just ride one horse at a time.
Also, feelings change us simply by being accepted and experienced even if we don’t have a plan for what to try in response to them.
Expectations come into play here. What we’ve learned is, the fewer expectations you have, about how you will respond to any particular experiment or about other people doing anything in particular, the easier life becomes. Keep moving strongly towards your inspiring intentions, just don’t expect anything to work out in the exact way you imagine.
Humans have been learning new skills for thousands of years, since long before the advent of modern science or even reason. Learning from our experiences is an innate gift we all have. The question is, which experiences do we learn from? We’d like to suggest that the experiences we learn from are the ones we pay attention to. There’s no need to take this at face value – it’s a question you can answer for yourself.
So the major gift that acceptance brings is that simply by trusting yourself to have your experiences and not trying to figure out what to change, you are still learning. Mood tracking can help us to pay attention to our mood and learn from it directly.
Build Your Intuition
This is one of the main benefits of self-tracking. A dedicated effort to look at something over time can help you to see patterns you didn’t know existed, and give you a greater awareness of yourself and how you function in the world. In the case of mood, building an intuitive understanding of how different triggers affect you makes it easier to manage and even change your mood.
A general principle we talk about at Quantified Self is: use a tool, learn a lesson, incorporate it into your life and body, then drop the tool because you don’t need it anymore. Of course, some people like to continue tracking for the sake of having data to look back on in the future, but sometimes it’s more helpful to track one or a few things deeply, until you’ve learned what you need to learn, then move on. There’s no hard and fast rule about when to be done with a particular form of tracking, but it’s worth periodically evaluating why you are tracking something and what you hope to gain from it, rather than continuing out of duty or habit.
Take the following mood chart, published by the Center for Quality Assessment and Improvement in Mental Health, which is operated by Tufts and Harvard Universities. It’s a great tool to start to be able to see your mood patterns, and can be especially useful for people with Bipolar Disorder, but you might not need to use it forever.
As part of preparing your mental state for tracking mood, recognize that by tracking you’ll get to know yourself better and that the learning isn’t just a list of facts – it affects how you feel about yourself, and you may not always have words to describe it.
For example, a person can know that she likes the taste of banana when he eats it without having to say “I like banana” in her head. Similarly, you know the mood of a painting, or a song, or someone’s expression, whether you say it to yourself or not. And after two years of mood tracking, Alex (from the story in the Introduction) can feel if she’s getting too depressed or manic and needs to change her behavior with some mood hacks to compensate. We’ll talk more about mood hacking in Chapter Four.
So armed with the right mindset of clarity, curiosity, and compassion, as well as a sense of acceptance and intuition, you’re now ready to start tracking mood. Tips for getting started are coming up in the next part of the book.
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.