Get Your Mood On: Part 1

December 9, 2012

If you’re curious about mood tracking, you’re in for a treat. Robin Barooah and I have written a book compiling our knowledge and experiences of mood tracking, and we’ll be posting chapters of the book here for your enjoyment and feedback.

Without further ado, here is the introduction!

Alex’s story: I can honestly say that mood tracking saved and transformed my life. I’ve battled depression off and on for twenty years, but tracking my mood every day for the past two and a half years has brought more positive change than I could have imagined when I started.

At Quantified Self, we ask people to tell their stories by answering three questions: What did you do? How did you do it? What did you learn?

What I did was to record my mood, one to eight times per day, whenever I felt like it.

How I did it was to write. A lot. Whatever was on my mind, from how the day went to processing painful experiences to celebrating insights. And, importantly, I shared what I was writing with a trusted friend, who was also sharing his mood with me. Knowing that someone was reading and listening to my posts helped me to be more gentle with myself and make faster progress.

What I learned could fill a book in itself! In a nutshell, I’ve learned to notice and accept up and down patterns of my mood, to welcome emotions rather than try to bury them only to have them come back stronger, to discover sensory sensitivities and design my environment to minimize their impact on my well-being, and to increase my awareness of how different foods and social situations affect me.

Tracking has also created a safe space where it’s okay to pour out any kind of emotion, no matter how hard or how wonderful it is. This space is very comforting, because I know I’m never alone. And I know that when I’m down, things will go back up again, because I can see that they always have in the past.

So for me, mood tracking makes the dark times seem less dark, and helps me to see patterns in my life that I like and want to reinforce, or that I think need to be changed for me to thrive. It has made me much more aware of myself and how I’m influenced by people and things around me. I’ve also made an amazing, trusted friend. Wins all around!

Robin’s story: My first experiences with mood tracking came in my teenage years. I was inspired by one of my schoolmates who was keeping a secret diary. He guarded it closely, and would occasionally read excerpts to his friends. I was struck by how listening to him seemed to bring a lightness and excitement to the kinds of events that had previously seemed mundane or challenging.

This was in the days before laptops, and I wasn’t good at writing quickly and comfortably with a pen, so I borrowed an electric typewriter and started to type out my thoughts and experiences.

I think this was the first time I’d written anything without being told to by an adult and the process was so cathartic that I quickly went through a whole ribbon. By chance, this helped me discover something that has stayed with me through my life. Being a schoolboy, I couldn’t afford to replace the expensive carbon ribbon, so I tried to make the ribbon go backwards by taking apart the cartridge and turning over the spools. The typewriter worked again but the text it produced was broken up and I could only read it if I looked carefully.

To my great surprise, I found myself writing even faster and expressing the more difficult emotional issues that plagued me. It turned out that not being able to clearly read what I had written freed me from getting caught up in judging and analyzing my thoughts, and this helped me to feel better.

Over the years, I experimented with many different variations of this process. I would often turn to such writing when I experienced particular turmoil or challenge. At some point in the last five years, I realized that I was only writing when there was something seriously wrong, and that I associated the writing itself with pain and angst.

Around the same time I started to believe that I tend to grow in the direction where I place my attention and so I felt a growing desire to know more about my experiences in the positive times in my life.

I played with a number of mood recording tools, in the end settling on making simple notes in a calendar – just one word if necessary, or more if I felt like it. Simply having this record has helped me to see how I change from day to day, and week to week. In particular, it lets me see the slow changes in myself that I wouldn’t have seen without it, and that have helped me to become more accepting.

I too chose to share my mood records with a friend, and this has created another set of benefits for me. While not without challenges to be negotiated, sharing my mood record has helped me to feel a sense of community and connectedness that I’ve always felt was weak in my life. Having a witness to my own challenges has helped me learn to communicate more gently with myself as well as with others, and seeing another person’s vulnerable struggle has helped me to feel more human when I am struggling.

Everyone feels happy, angry, anxious, and depressed sometimes. Mood changes are a normal part of everyday life, and some people can roll with them smoothly. For many, though, mood can be a challenging thing to manage. Depression affects about 121 million people worldwide, with many more going undiagnosed, and is the leading cause of disability. Anxiety disorders touch 16% of people globally at some point in their lives.

The question is, can tracking your mood improve your mood, or make life easier in some way? Is there any evidence of this beyond anecdotes like our stories above?

Well, yes, there is. People who live with Bipolar Disorder use mood tracking to understand and lessen the effects of their mood swings. When a change in mood is happening, it can be detected early to give them advance warning for some kind of intervention. Charting moods, in combination with other psychosocial strategies like cognitive behavioral therapy, has been shown to help people better regulate extreme moods.

Researchers also use mood tracking to predict different people’s response to a particular drug, to differentiate and diagnose different kinds of mood disorders, and to help doctors and therapists monitor their patients’ mood progression under the influence of different treatments.

Great, you say, so is this just for people with mood disorders, or will it help me be happier in my life? That’s an excellent question. The recent explosion of mood tracking apps with names like Track Your Happiness suggests that being more aware of your moods and what affects them can steer you towards greater happiness in life. The folks behind the app Mood Panda aggregated statistics from all of their global users in 2011 and looked for patterns. They discovered that work has the biggest influence on mood at a population level, and women are unhappy on Wednesdays. However, one can find any pattern in data if one looks closely enough. Well-designed longitudinal studies to test the effect of mood tracking as an intervention on overall mood have yet to be done.

An important thing to realize is that happiness is not necessarily the goal of mood tracking.

An excessive focus on happiness would seem to be almost disrespectful to the wide range of possible human emotions that lift us up, teach us, and make life rich and varied. A more thoughtful goal, or intention, or reason to try tracking mood, is simply to increase awareness. The act of pausing to check in with yourself about how you’re feeling in different situations, as well as looking back to similar situations in the past, can help you see trends and influences on your mood that you may not ever have noticed. You may also find yourself being able to differentiate moods in a more granular way, building a vocabulary of emotion and increasing the dimensionality of your mood perception abilities.

There is a significant difference between the knowledge that we discover for ourselves, and knowledge that we receive from others. If you have ever cooked a dish from a recipe, you’ll know that simply reading the recipe doesn’t mean that you know the dish it describes. You learn the dish by trying to make it, by tasting as you go along and experimenting. Along the way, the things that the author of the recipe could never know – your local ingredients, your stove, your cooking style, and your tastes, get incorporated into what you do, and the dish becomes your own.

So it is with self-knowledge.  When you monitor and experiment with your own moods and emotions, you learn about yourself through direct experience, and the knowledge you gain becomes part of who you are.

If there’s one thing that we would like this book to convey, it is the idea that experimenting with your life and paying attention to how you feel, using all the tools available in our modern world, can help you grow as a human being and ultimately make more sense of your life.

In the following chapters, we will flesh out these topics, give you an overview of the different ways to go about tracking mood, share inside tips on how to get started easily and effectively, and discuss the importance of subtler points like mood sharing, feedback loops, and your environment. Stay tuned!

(Continue reading…
Part 2: How Is Mood Measured?
Part 3: Preparing Your Mental State
Part 4: DIY Mood Tracking
Part 5: Mood Sharing and Experimentation
Part 6: Exploring the Future of Mood Tracking)

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