Is tracking your mood good for you?

These two entries are on my fridge as a testament to my (since abandoned) efforts to self-motivate into developing a running habit. I was taught that paying attention to almost any metric tends to improve it, and there is definitely something in seeing metrics improve that is motivating. Hence just by monitoring one’s eating habits we tend to improve them, and monitoring our spending makes us more inclined to spend wisely.

But what about tracking your mood? Does keeping track of our moods make us happier?

The evidence here is actually quite mixed and disproportionately scarce compared to the number of mood trackers available in app stores. One reason for this may be that mood trackers in and of themselves barely existed before smartphones. Prior to smartphones, we used ecological momentary assessment to monitor mood changes throughout the day and interactions with symptoms. Mood monitoring alone does not appear to be sufficient to drive positive mood outcomes in the context of bipolar disorder, but in other disorders the evidence is virtually non-existent.

Context, though, may be important. One study found a positive effect of workplace mood tracking on team cohesiveness. One older study conducted in 1995 differentiated between mood monitoring (drawing awareness to one’s moods) and mood labelling (the ability to label and categorize one’s moods). The authors found that mood monitoring was associated with negative attributes like ruminating on negative mood, whereas mood labeling was associated with more positive attributes like satisfaction with social support. It has since been shown that frequent monitoring of negative symptoms does not induce rumination or depressed mood though presumably a more compelling reason exists for why people would be interested in mood-tracking in an app. A recent study looked at this question, qualitatively analyzing app store reviews.

The primary reasons people use mood trackers is to learn about themselves and their health, self-manage symptoms and improve mood. However, the authors note a problematic tendency for apps to just track mood, and fall short when it comes to closing the loop – supporting insights that lead to mental health promoting behaviours.

Mood tracking is about cultivating awareness, which I believe subsumes a labelling component – that is, translating that mood into something other than a sensation in the limbic system (a word, an image, a color, a rating scale, etc.). The world is a much more noisy place now than it was in 1995. There is so much vying for our attention these days, that far from an opportunity to ruminate over negative emotion, there’s rarely an opportunity to stop and connect with what we might be experiencing. That simple question, “how are you?”, can be grounding in and of itself.

We built Woebot with this specific purpose in mind. When we built a Woebot prototype, we tested it alongside other methods of mood tracking, and the results were surprisingly clear. Relative to other methods, Woebot is particularly helpful for mood tracking. Here’s why:

  • As our original published study revealed, Woebot “feels more like a friend checking in than an app”. Answering a friend is psychologically easier than feeling like you’re doing homework, or being harassed by a needy app notification.
  • And yet, Woebot is not human. This is also what makes the experience different. Because it means that when the question is sent, the usual guff of social relationships like feeling self-conscious (“are they reaching out to me because they think I’ve been a negligent friend?”), impression management burden (“how do I answer this so I sound fun and smart?”) etc. is eliminated. Freeing us up to answer that question honestly – “How am I, really?”
  • Over time, Woebot remembers what you’re sharing. Woebot can use that information to encourage reflection, with the hope of providing insights. We define an insight as a piece of information that leads to behaviour change.
  • Woebot isn’t just for people with “real” problems. Rather, a guiding design principal for us is that everyone can benefit from basic emotional awareness. My husband is the most positive, well-adjusted person I’ve ever met, and yet after just a few days of checking in with Woebot he was shocked to discover a clear association between having even one mid-week drink with a dip in mood the next day.

One of the first steps towards learning about what’s going on inside of our brains is to begin by cultivating awareness. Once we’re able to do this over time, we should be able to more easily connect with ourselves and what we’re experiencing, feel more grounded and mindful. If we can identify patterns, we can learn about why we’re experiencing different moods, which can lead us to have more control over how we feel each and every day. Time well spent I’d say.