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How Living By the Numbers Has Paved the Way for Self-Improvement

Photo courtesy of Koen Vereeken

How far would you go to monitor different aspects of your life? We all have certain faults we’d like to improve upon, but a relatively new group of people (an eclectic mix of hackers, patients, geeks and fitness freaks) is taking self-tracking to the extreme, as they use technology to monitor practically every aspect of their daily lives in geeky detail.

The Quantified Self is a community of “lifeloggers” – people who use their computers, mobile phones, and various other biometric sensors to keep track of the numbers that break down their daily lives. Things like heart rate, blood pressure, food and drink intake, exercise and sleep patterns are all monitored throughout a typical day of one of these devotees. The stats are then often shared with a community of likeminded people through social networking sites. As I mentioned in my earlier article about measuring mood, I think it’s a neat idea, and I’m very tempted to give it a try, if only to see how healthy I really am.

Thanks to improvements in data storage, processing power, and the advent of smartphones, we can now do so much more to track our daily stats while we go about our lives. Smartphones are provided with all kinds of built-in sensors, from cameras and GPS to accelerometers and gyroscopes, and taking quantitative measurements has never been easier. Perhaps more importantly, this practice has only become affordable in recent years. It is now possible to calculate the number of steps you take or your sleep cycles for very little cost, and app developers for devices like the iPhone are having a field day.

We’re only really scratching the surface of the possibilities with self-tracking technology, but the question then becomes “why should we keep track?” On top of advancing research for public health, I believe that following the Quantified Self way of life is an effective way to learn more about who you really are. By looking more closely at the numbers that work together to make us us, we can start to understand ourselves a lot better, and then make lasting self-improvements.

To find out more about lifelogging and the Quantified Self, check out this presentation by Gary Wolf.

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Does Measuring Mood Make Sense?

Photo courtesy of Celia

Is it possible to improve your mood simply by observing it?

That’s the question sites like Moodscope have been attempting to answer. I decided to check out the daily mood-tracking site for myself after a friend told me about her experiences there. (Before I go on, I should mention that her feedback was highly positive, and she felt a real benefit from her ongoing participation). I was intrigued by the site’s claims that you could lift your mood simply by answering questions on a daily basis, and so I set out to see if it would work in my case.

Moodscope asks you to pop along once a day and answer a series of questions about how you’re feeling at that moment. Then it turns your answers into a number – your mood score. Over time, you’re supposed to see patterns in your mood emerging as your mood score changes, and you can then bring about personal improvements.

On my first visit, I was immediately surprised by the simplicity of the test. You’re given a 20-item list of emotions and you’re required to respond with how strongly you’re feeling them, with the options ranging from 0 for very slightly or not at all to 3 for extremely. Generally, I’m not a fan of this kind of test, which forces you to pick between a set of numbers completely unrelated to the question. If the question was “how many apples did you eat for breakfast?”, I’d be far more accepting of this line of answering, but saying that my current level of happiness is a 2 or that my hostility score is a 3 seems a little absurd to me.

After taking the test each day for a couple of weeks, I could see that I wasn’t really getting anywhere. The way the test is supposed to improve your mood over time is through the Hawthorne Effect – a reaction to testing whereby you make improvements simply in response to the fact that you’re being studied. There have been some arguments against the effectiveness of the Hawthorne Effect, while others have denied its existence entirely.

In any case, there is something to be said for the concept of quantified self – the act of regularly measuring various aspects of your life, such as heart rate, blood pressure, weight, calorie intake, and exercise, for the sake of improvement. I actually think it’s pretty neat to make positive changes in your behavior from these kinds of observations. But shouldn’t we draw the line at our moods? And if we don’t, what’s next? Measuring the human spirit? Or measuring all our emotions on a line between fear and love?

While I can appreciate Moodscope will work for a lot of people, I didn’t find any personal benefits in it. For me, it just doesn’t make sense to assign a number to something as complex as our moods. But please, if you’re interested, try it out and decide for yourself.

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