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Quantified Self – mood tracking

This post is part of my liveblogged account of a conference. Two disclaimers: Liveblogging is hard, and I often get things wrong. If I did, please feel free to correct me via email or in the comments and I’ll make changes when appropriate. Second, the opinions expressed in these sorts of posts are those of the speakers, rather than mine.

Margie Morris leads a session on mood tracking during the final breakout session at QS2011. In the room are developers of five different mood tracking tools, and many of the people in the room track moods either on an ongoing basis or occasionally. She starts us with an exercise in understanding our moods, asking us to write down a project that was important to us, and to describe our emotions about the project now, when we began the project, when it started to get difficult and when we were near completion.

The vast majority of people in the session used words to articulate their feelings, often a pair of words. Some drew pictures. No one chose numbers, which is somewhat interesting for a quantified self conference. Margie suggested that we think about our emotional states in terms of a two dimensional matrix, a mood map, with axes of arousal (intensity) and valence (positivity versus negativity). We talk about the difficulty of representing some emotions with one or more numnbers. Is shame a form of sadness? What if it’s the sort of slight, smug shame that comes from doing what you wanted to do instead of what you were supposed to do?

It’s difficult to reduce mood to a number. But it’s useful to do so, because we’re very bad at remembering our moods. We have recall biases that help us remember the most recent and most intense moods – a general sense of happiness and well-being in the past might be masked by a brief, sharp period of unhappiness as we’re asked to recall how we felt. At the same time, there’s a concern expressed by some in the room that technology and culture can bias us against negative emotion. We might be pushed to underreport sadness from a sense that self-help books want us to acknowledge positive emotions and let go of the negative ones, or by an application that subtly encourages us to consider and soften our emotions before reporting them. Morris notes that there’s a bias against extremes – ask people to rate their moods from 1-10 and you’ll see few reports at the extreme ends of the scale. Give users two dimensions to report in and you’ll see that bias soften or disappear.

The application designers briefly discuss whether their tools show you the past emotions you’ve recorded before allowing your most recent input – is it better to allow someone to report their emotion without prompting, or do we benefit from showing people the patterns they’re documenting as they’re reporting?

Jon Cousins told his story about Moodscope, a personal project he started to work on bipolar disorder. Cousins started experiencing an intense depression and went to seek medical help. When the British National Health Service wasn’t able to schedule an appointment with an appropriate psychiatrist for some weeks, he found himself feeling very desperate, and looked for a constructive way to handle his intense emotions. Tracking his emotions, using a modified version of the PANAS (positive and negative affect schedule) to put a single number on his mood, helped lessen his dips in mood and stabilize his emotions.

Cousins unrolled a vast paper scroll that tracked the last few years of his emotional life. The the ribbon of paper stretches the width of the room, and we see – far to the left – a red line oscilating sharply between a deep blue at the bottom of a graph and a sunny yellow at the top. About a year into the graph, the line rises into positive territory and stays there, with very little variation. Cousins explains that this first, long period of positive stability came from taking a simple action: sharing his mood with one other person.

A friend knew that Cousins was tracking his mood and asked him to share his scores on a daily basis. He now shares scores with five close friends. The connection between sharing scores and higher reported scores prompts a number of participants to wonder if Cousins began reporting higher scores for fear of worrying his friends. He explains that he doesn’t believe this is the case. Sometimes he precedes a low score report to his five friends with a note saying, “This is going to look bad, but I’m okay,” knowing they’d otherwise be likely to try to intervene. But he agrees that there’s an effect that comes from reflection: “My friend sends a message that’s as simple as ‘?’ in a response to a low score I’ve posted, and I’m compelled to write him a note of explanation. The act of considering and reporting the emotion can be enough to help find a way out of the trap of negative emotion.”

Someone suggests that the sheer fact that someone cares enough for Cousins to ask to be privy to his mood might be enough to raise his scores… and the daily reminder that person cares is important as well. Others point to the value of journaling – considering one’s mood carefully enough to put a score on it, and ready a possible justification, may allow for a “cognitive reappraisal” of a situation that helps improve mood. Sharing mood information does seem to be powerful, though – one participant talks about how she began reciprocally sharing mood information with a friend, someone she wasn’t especially close to. The two have grown much closer in the process – sharing this information and the reasons behind it has led the two to form a deep bond.

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