Almost all of us are familiar with apps that track how many steps you take in a day, how your sleep is moving in and out of different phases, heartbeat, mood and a host of other aspects of your experiences and habits, the umbrella term being “personal informatics frameworks”. Mobile apps for mood tracking: an analysis of features and user reviews . It is a science and business that is booming almost beyond belief. What to think about it in a psychological lens? I made a dive into the matter… As it is a huge area, I have only scratched the surface, but I have tried to zoom in on the big pixels as it were. Leave a comment if you like.
Mood tracking apps
What do we know about mood tracking apps and their effects? They are very popular. There are more than 300.000 self monitoring health apps and more than 10.000 are directed at mood monitoring. One of the more widespread of the latter is “Daylio”. I have tried that myself and found it intuitively easy to use and it actually connects what you do – or did alongside your notations of your daily mood. In this way it makes a lot of sense as emotions to a large extent can be considered reflections or even symptoms of our choices, actions and the situations we find ourselves in. Your behavior and your emotions are two sides of the same coin. Learning how to connect your activities with your emotions is key to learning how to live a better life and form a better relationship with yourself and others. In the App Store Daylio has received more than 350.000 ratings and has a score of 4.7. That is very, very decent. “Universe of Emotions” is another mood tracking app, which – imo is good also, as it entails a sort of education as to how the varying emotions and moods map onto a matrix: x: happy-sad and y: low-high energy. However it appears more clunky, less intuitively appealing than Daylio.
Users of mood apps report a decrease in impulsivity and momentary negative emotions: The Clinical Impacts of Mobile Mood-Monitoring in Young People With Mental Health Problems: The MeMO Study. This makes sense to a clinical psychologist like myself as the act of observing your emotions and mood creates at least two benificial effects: You distance yourself if ever so slightly from your more intense states of mood as you take on the role of observer. Also: When you note all kinds of different emotions that you may experience in a day you distract yourself from over-focusing on any one emotion. Especially negative emotions have a magnetic draw on our awareness due to our negativity bias https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negativity_bias- such mood apps help people suffering from negative mental states to widen their experiential horizont, zooming out as it were, and noting more neutral and positive emotions and states of mind that they obviously also experience daily.
Apparently such mood tracking apps create some of the same great psychotherapeutic effects that writing an expressive diary produces. The difference being that these apps are easier to use albeit they don’t work at the same deep level as expressive diaries work on. (If you are curious as to how to establish a writing routine, reach out.)
Health Tracking Apps
Like many others, I find it useful to track my daily steps and have also tracked my sleep patterns. The self monitoring app I use the most is my fitness app connected to my fitness center. This app shows you, amongst other things, a graph of how often you work out. My personal goal is a minimum of three workouts a week. My fitness center app functions as a reminder to work out, it quantifies my bad consciousness when I skip workouts (less abstract and more manageable somehow) and it lets me savor my effort: It feels great to revel in a graph showing 20 workouts a month.
The science is clear. Health tracking apps work:
There is proper statistical significance behind claimed effects: [2102.05506] Empowering Patients Using Smart Mobile Health Platforms: Evidence From A Randomized Field Experiment. For a less sciency write up check out this article: Do Health Apps Really Make Us Healthier?
They have ecological validity – They are extremely popular. People wouldn’t be using them as frequently as they do unless they got some sort of benefit out of it.
They have face validity – Any and all extra awareness on what you want to change, will make the behavior more salient in your mind and motivate you to do what you aim for. Therefore such apps concerning for example fitness/health goals or compliance with medicines make sense.
Is our preoccupation with health- and mood tracking also a cause for concern?
A small minority of people may experience adverse effects from such apps.
They may cause problems for users who are high on trait neuroticism (free test here), IPIP-120 Personality Test . People with this kind of temperament may have a harder time experiencing being satisfied with themselves in which case the health- and mood tracking may primarily promote the feeling of not being good enough. The same can be said for people suffering from low self esteem. Although it is a question of what app they are using and how they go about using them. Such apps may very well and just as likely, boost health and mood for people with low self esteem and high trait neuroticism.
Sufferers of OCD and bipolar disorder may also see their conditions worsen as a result of following such apps unguided, as they may perpetuate rigid and anxious ways of living and in the case of bipolar depression a person in a manic or hypomanic phase really doesn’t need further motivation. – That being said, self monitoring – mood, behavior etc – has long been a standard therapeutic tool for people who suffer from bipolar depression, in order for them to predict when an episode may be coming on. In this case apps are far superior tools to the excel sheets that they had to work with years back. Here the devil is in the detail: it is all about what app the person follows, the instruction/guidance and its functions! In general however people suffering from OCD should perhaps steer clear of these apps, they are, as it is, way too focused on systematizing and tracking their emotions and behaviors to begin with.
These apps may also worsen the quality of life for people with a higher than average need for control and perfectionism. Some people will neglect their partner, children and friends in a life gamified by obsessively following app-aided schedules of health and training. Very specifically such apps may worsen cases of overtraining/megarexia/muscle dysmorphia (typically men who have a distorted image of themselves as too thin) and anorexia (typically women who have a distorted image of themselves as fat).
There are also diverse critical sociological perspectives on our usage of such apps: That we by means of such self monitoring apps focus too much on ourselves at the expense of our commitment to social causes. That any and all self awareness equals unhealthy self absorption. That young people suffering today suffer because they are narcissistically focusing on any and all feelings or thoughts that don’t feel nice or normal. In other words they suffer from exaggerated self focus that may be exacerbated by aforementioned apps? Seen in a macro perspective one may raise such concerns regarding the widespread use of health- and mood tracking apps but as they say: The proof is in the pudding. In a microcosm, regarding the individual actually using them, the apps rather convincingly promotes health and improves mood.
In closing: If you need to get into a better shape, adopt a more healthy lifestyle, or if you want to stabilize your mood and emotions and you haven’t got the money or time to see a therapist, personal trainer or – fill in the blank – you may very well get a positive effect from getting into personal health and mood tracking. The key: Follow your preferred app every single day for at least a month. Otherwise the effect will be too small for you to notice any effect. Either do it or don’t. Good luck. You are your own test subject :0)