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Boosting positivity: The impact of mood tracking on mental well-being

Fitness apps help motivate users to live healthier, happier lives. New ASU research investigates whether mood tracking apps can do the same.

George Spencer

Step tracking has competition. Another form of daily wearable monitoring — emotion tracking — is giving that walking ritual a run for its money. Being reminded of past emotions, especially happiness, boosts how good a person feels. That’s the result of new research by Reihane Boghrati, an assistant professor of information systems.

“If you track emotions, you’re going to see a persistent improvement in positive emotions,” says Boghrati, whose paper, “Emotion Tracking (vs. Reporting) Increases the Persistence of Positive (vs. Negative) Emotions,” was published last year in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Studies of tracking calories and walking have proven that daily monitoring can motivate users to eat better and exercise more because reminders of low progress spur users to do better. Far less is known about the benefits of tracking mental health, even though an array of mood apps already exist.

Emotion tracking is understudied compared to physical tracking because emotions operate differently than activities such as exercise. Unlike exercising, emotions are not cumulative. “Someone cannot be happier today to make up for their unhappiness last week,” according to Boghrati, who notes that while the physical results of exercise are apparent, some people may not know how to improve their emotions.

Sustained happiness through tracking

To prove the existence of a “positive persistence” effect, Boghrati and coauthors Marissa Sharif, Siavash Yousefi, and Arsalan Heydarian recruited 413 participants for studies that lasted 21 and 28 days. The test subjects were equally male and women and mostly middle-aged. Boghrati and her coauthors took steps to control for other factors such as education, ethnicity, and personality type.

They divided subjects into three groups. A control group received no questions about their emotions. The tracking and reporting groups each reported their emotions every day and ranked them on a scale, but only the tracking group saw every day how their levels of happiness had gone up or down. At the end of the studies, participants answered questionnaires that probed changes in their emotional well-being.

“Tracking (vs. reporting) leads to higher persistence of positive emotions,” Boghrati concludes. Compared to the reporting [group], participants in the tracking [group] (where a history of their past emotions was presented) were more likely to feel positive emotions the next day if they felt positive today.”

Resisting mental doom loops

Boghrati foresees the day when digital emotional tracking platforms are routinely used. She is optimistic that mood-tracking apps will resist what social science researchers call “negativity bias.” It has long been known that people are far more likely to remember unpleasant and traumatic events than happy experiences. That built-in bias can create a mental “doom loop” that deters people suffering from mental woes such as anxiety or depression from feeling better.

“If I feel positive today, and if I’m reminded tomorrow that I felt positive yesterday, then I will feel more positive. Let's keep that positivity going,” says Boghrati, who earned her PhD and master’s degree in computer science at the University of Southern California and was then a postdoctoral research fellow at The Wharton School.

The case for digital emotion tracking

According to Boghrati, digital emotion-tracking apps have an advantage over traditional gratitude journals. Gratitude journal users take a few minutes each day to jot down several things for which they feel grateful. She acknowledges the benefits of journal-keeping but says journal users only sometimes review what they were thankful for every day in recent days and weeks.

“An electronic app that tracks and reminds you daily of your feelings is telling you, ‘Hey, this is what are you being grateful for. This is why you feel positive.’ That's the difference between it and a journal. You’re not just reporting feelings. You’re being reminded of them, and that positive reinforcement should make people feel better continuously,” she says.

Boghrati cautions that a mood app alone will not resolve a user’s depression or other significant mental woes. “It’s a set of things keeping you positive if you are feeling positive,” she says.

What’s next for mood tracking

She plans to investigate the impact of mood apps over extended periods and how or if different types of good news, such as a promotion versus time with loved ones, have other long-term impacts on happiness. Boghrati is also in the early stages of researching how using a mood app might benefit persons with long-term chronic illnesses.

According to her, mood-tracking apps are easy technology to implement. “We already have wearable devices and the technology,” she says. “If we can have simple daily reminders that help people feel better, then why not use them?”

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