Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

An Experiment in Mood Tracking: How I Tracked My Mood and What I Learned

Can we and should we track our moods? And if we could track our moods what would we learn?

For the last couple months, I’ve been running an experiment in mood tracking. For two separate two-week periods, I recorded my mood score five or six times per day by selecting a variable smiling, frowning or neutral face. I logged my mood a total of 134 times.

What were the results of my mood tracking data? Am I moody? Not really. On average, my mood has been either “ok” or “good.” There were a few instances of a neutral mood (I’m not a morning person), and a couple outliers where I was very happy. As life happens, on one occasion, I was “not ok.”

In this post, I’d like to share how I tracked my mood and some of the lessons I learned through this experiment.

Some Challenges to Mood Tracking

One of the initial problems I had with mood tracking was philosophical rather than practical. As I explore in detail in An Exploration of Mood Tracking: Can We Measure How We Feel?, mood tracking or mood monitoring has existing in therapeutic psychology for over seventy years. Initially the idea was doctors would have their patients keep a journal or use a chart to log their feelings, and this could, in turn, be used to treat various mood disorders.

Attempts were made to standardize mood logging. The linear scale approach simplified mood logging to either positive, negative or neutral or rated mood on a scale from 1-10. Another approach presented mood tracking in terms of dimensionality and allowed people to select a range of emotions to then extrapolate one’s mood.

Language adds another level of complexity, since different languages have different vocabularies for our emotional states. Like the nuances to color words in different languages, there is no universal language for our emotions too.

Biology and human physiology might offer a naturalistic answer to what is an emotion or mood. By measuring our hormones and neurotransmitters, we could one day pinpoint one’s mood or at least the chemical background of our moods. Unfortunately, while a biological model of emotions seems like an attractive option, it is reductionist and fails to capture our subjective perspective. Moods are our own, and how we relate, rate and classify them personally do matter.

As I see it, the challenges to mood tracking are two-fold. First, we don’t have a clear psychological framework for describing and classifying emotions, sentiments and moods. Second, there is no defined protocol to capture and measure moods. When you don’t know how to define a mood, it’s equally difficult to define how to measure it.

Putting these deep philosophical, physiological and psychological issues aside, there are practical reasons why we can and should quantify our moods. For certain diseases, like depression and bipolar disorder, mood monitoring has proven beneficial for both patients and doctors.

Measuring our moods is an abstraction. Our language, biological and our subjective perspective all offer elements to our emotional state. But we inhabit and possess our moods. We define our moods.

As such, in a practical way, mood tracking is useful tool or method to help people who want to understand their mental state and what triggers certain emotional highs and lows.

My Mood Tracking Tools

In the past and some cases still today, I track my time, my health, my movements, my media consumption, my fitness and workouts, my tasks and even my productivity. Tracking one’s mood seemed like an obvious target for someone like me. So, in spite of the challenges and limitations to measuring a mood, I decided mood tracking was an area of self-tracking I wanted to try.

The first step in tracking my mood involved a review the various apps and tools to log one’s mood. I was surprised just how many apps and web services have been created and work well for measuring people’s mood.

As I go into detail in Mood Tracking on iOS: A Review of Apps for Logging Your Emotional Life, most apps out there work well for basic mood logging. There are different approaches to how you measure a mood (linear scales, word clouds) as well as different additional features. Some apps provide a journaling option, great exploration of what affects your moods, or a support community.

Personally my two favorites for iOS, MoodNotes and iMoodJournal. Both offer easy logging, decent design, Apple Watch integration and data export.

I elected to use MoodNotes, since it had slightly better design, and I like it’s “biased” position that the goal of recording a mood was to influencing it towards a more positive one.

My Mood Tracking Protocol

Now that I had a mood tracking tool, I had to decide on my tracking protocol. For example, should I do a single mood entry that covers how I felt about the entire day or should I log my mood at that particular moment in the day?

There are positives and negatives to either approach, and, if I was looking for a sustainable tracking method over a long period, I’d most likely do a single mood log per day and record my day’s mood at the end of the day.

For this experiment, I elected to log my mood multiple times per day. My target was 4 or 5 mood check-ins per day. I wanted to log my mood when I woke up, mid-morning, early afternoon, evening and night. With MoodNotes, it’s quite easy to setup reminders throughout the day, and logging on the Watch took only a few seconds.

The end result was that each day had its average mood, and I could also see patterns in mood throughout a typical day.

In my case, I tend to wakeup with a more neutral or just ok mood. Following a positive morning, my late morning and early afternoons scores tended to be slightly higher. My evening scores tended to be good or slightly above. This is not surprising since some evenings, I’d have social outings or a nice dinner out.

For this tracking experiment, I decided to do my mood tracking in a more settled situation. I travel a good amount, and split my time between traveling and a few more settled situations, including a mountain house I have in Western China. So, my two tracking periods that covered about 2 to 3 weeks each took place when I was not traveling. It would be interesting to see a followup where I compared this by tracking one or two travel period.

RAW RESULTS of My Mood Tracking Experiment

Using an export of my mood check-ins from MoodNotes, I created a google spreadsheet for my initial data exploration. Here are the key numbers:

  • Rows 134
  • Sum 606
  • Ave 4.52238806
  • Max 6
  • Min 2
  • Median 5

My mood was mostly above ok and slightly below happy (4 is ok, 5 is happy) during this period.

Visualizing My Moods: Am I Moody?

Using Tableau, I created a few data visualizations on my mood tracking:

As you can see from these charts, both tracking periods showed quite similar results with a slight mood improvement in the second period. So I’d at least argue that my mood and likely behavior was quite similar during both periods.

In terms of variance, my mood was not quite as positive in the morning and on Mondays. While I consider myself productive in the morning, I’m not that keen to wake up. There may not be enough data points to draw any conclusions though.

Finally, I think the main takeaway from tracking and visualizing my mood is that I am not very moody. In fact, my mood tends to hover consistently around ok or happy. 92.5% of my mood check-in’s were positive.

These results are not all that surprising to me, and like a lot of tracking and experiments, the data confirms what I already suspected: I’m not depressed and generally quite a happy fellow.

Lessons and Questions: What I Learned From Tracking My Mood

Easier Than Ever To Log Your Mood (and track your life in general)

With the proliferation of smart phones and wearables, it’s easier than ever to track your life. We essentially carry around or wear sensors all the time. To track your mood, it’s as simple as a few taps to capture how you feel in a moment. There really is no excuse to mood tracking if you want to try it.

Can We Influence Our Moods? I think so now.

I found mood logging to be an easy task, but it does take you slightly out of the moment, especially when you are working on something engaging. In spite of it sometimes jarring me out a moment, tracking my mood created an interesting mental nudge or opportunity to take action on moods. For example, by logging my mood, I noticed it and I could try to convert a so, so mood into a better one. I could take a break, go for a walk, have a tea or do a different activity. These were all actions and thought patterns that might spur me to be happier.

So, one takeaway from mood tracking is similar to mediation or time tracking, it’s about noticing something and then influencing it. When you do mindfulness meditation, you notice what goes on in your mind. When you manually track your time, you actively notice and choose what you are focused on. In both cases, you are aware. In this way, mood tracking provides a chance to be aware of your moods.

Reflect on Your Mood, Engage with Your Mood Data

If you really are feeling up and down in your moods, logging it feels like good way to start to understand your patterns. Even better and more important is reflecting and engaging with you mood data.

MoodNotes and a few of the other mood tracking apps provide cues and check-ins to think about past moods. Some even offer ways to expose correlations. But in most cases the impetus is on the tracker to look at their past moods and situations where that mood occurred and try to derive insights on it.

I say this often, but tracking is the easy part. What matters is engaging with what you track, understand what it means and see if you can or should make a change. Then use data to see if the change helped. Whether it’s your health biomarkers, your productivity or your mood, tracking is just the first step towards optimization.

Does Mood Correlate with Productivity and Health?

Due to the low variance and generally consistent results (happy and ok), I don’t have enough data to show a correlation or causation between low productivity and poor moods. But I can show a decent relationship over these two periods where I was happy, productive and healthy. In both periods I was getting regular exercise and generally producing good and consistent workout put.

More research is needed here, but my hunch is that good work, good health and a good mood can be linked in a harmonious way. You may not want to log your mood all the time, but if you are getting exercise or doing productive work, there is a good chance your mood is good too.

Can We Track or Know Our Mood Without Manually Logging it?

One of the biggest barriers to consistently tracking anything is if you have to manually log it. In most cases, you should stick with passive tracking over manual tracking. Most mood tracking requires that you manually log it.

There is an interesting TEDx video on “New Tools to Measure Our Mood and Predict the Future,” which looked at using sentiment analysis in the text on Twitter to extrapolate macro trends. Basically by looking at public tweets, the researchers could estimate the mood of a society. This approach might be turned to a more personal gauge, and by observing your different text and speech, determine your mood.

It would be a great improvement if mood tracking could be more seamless and passive in the background, since mood tracking does take time and might break you out the flow.

In spite of the difficulties, I decided mood tracking was worth the effort for this experiment, but I also realized it wasn’t a habit be adding to my life. Heart Rate Variability and Biomarker and Blood Testing are two other manual tests I do but both have a lot of benefits in the data so I log them regularly and consistently.

In contrast, mood tracking just doesn’t provide enough interesting data and variance for me to continue to do it everyday. I would consider doing another mood tracking experiment when I’m in a different situation, like a new job or travel place. It’s also clearly a potentially useful tool if your mood starts to degrade.

How Might I Track My Mood Passively?

From tracking my mood manually for awhile, I suspect there might be ways to know your mood without consciously logging it. In my case, I write in my journal everyday, and I might parse my text to get a mood score; or another interesting idea would be to use the specific music I listen to predict my mood. For example, do I listen to certain songs when I’m in a certain mood?

It might also be interesting to see how real-time blood chemistry tracking might also provide a clue to our moods. For example, how do certain levels of hormones, brain activity and insulin levels relate to how we feel?

For me though and based on what I’m already tracking, I think the best predictor of my mood (without actually logging it manually) would be seeing if and when I’m productive. For example, if I’m completing tasks during the work day and not excessively using youtube or watching Netflix, then my mood would most likely be positive.

By contrast, I occasionally end up burned out from work and life, and these periods tend to be when I bing watch a TV series or YouTube during the daytime. I turn apathetic and unproductive. It might last a day or two, but it’s generally quite clear that when I’m not producing stuff, my mood is down. Unless I’m on a holiday or vacation, if I’m not working or putting time into project, then my mood is likely off. Basically, I could use my activity patterns and productivity to predict my mood.

Conclusion: Should You Track Your Mood? Why and Why Not?

In this post, I shared my recent experiment in mood tracking. In spite of the limits and limitations to measuring moods, you can learn some things about yourself by observing how you feel. In my case, I used MoodNotes to capture my mood around four or five times per day. The results of this experiment showed my moods are generally positive (happy, ok or very happy) with occasional moments of not ok and neutral. One surprise that the data, once aggregated and visualized, showed me was that my mood is lower when I wake and my mood is generally not as good on Mondays. I was also surprised to see Sunday having a lower mood score too. Overall though, my mood tracking revealed something I already knew: I’m a happy and positive guy the vast majority of the time.

So, should you track your mood? Anyone with a mood disorder and tendency to struggle with their emotions can get some benefits from mood tracking.

If you are already tracking your life in a few ways, then mood tracking might make for an interesting experiment. You’ll especially want to take the chance to not just track, but to engage with what you track. Specifically I think part of the point of tracking something, especially you mood, is reflecting and noticing.

After logging your mood for a few days, look back on it and see if you can derive any insights. Even without sophisticated data analysis, you should have noticed a few ways your mood gets affected by different aspects of your life. The opportunity is to then try and find ways to make life adjustments, thinking pattern modifications or behavioral changes to avoid negative moods and stay positive (and productive and healthy too).

Personally, I found mood monitoring to be a lot like my past experiment with meditation and my on-going practice of time tracking. All three situations make you aware of what is happening. In the case of mindfulness meditation, you take a break and attempt to simply sit and settle your mind. It can be a challenge at first to not get distracted but you eventually gain a new understanding of your mental clutter and ability to stay more focused in the moment.

I’ve found time tracking has similar benefits. It helps you stay focused and on-task during a period. Whether or not you do Pomodoros or follow a calendar schedule of chunks, by starting a timer with each project or task you are on, you dedicate yourself to that specific thing. You start to become less of a multi-tasker and more deep worker. You start to notice how in the past you procrastinated without really being focused on the best task or project in the moment.

In the same way, mood tracking provides a chance to be aware of your moods. I’ve been quite fortunate in this life, and I don’t have much to be sad about. I don’t dwell much on my moods either. But by mood tracking for the past several weeks, I noticed my mood and reaction to mood in new ways. I realized the obvious that my moods are pretty positive, but I also discovered that I can be aware of mood (even without tracking it) and take steps to deal with emotional moments in constructive, positive ways.

So, ultimately, whether you should track your mood, depends on your situation and interest, but I think everyone can benefit from the simple act of noticing and engaging with our moods and behaviors.

Be present. Good luck and happy tracking!

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