Monthly Archives: April 2016

Your phone – the 21st century equivalent of a mood ring?

For a while in the 1970s, mood rings were all the rage.

They supposedly indicated the wearer’s emotions by changing colour, and they were allegedly scientific.

Mind you, this was also the time of pet rocks.


By 1976, mood rings had entered popular culture to the extent that they featured in a Peanuts comic strip, when Peppermint Patty got so upset with Charlie Brown that her mood ring exploded.

Not a pretty sight.

You really don’t want that happening.

Fast forward 40 years, and some believe that smartphones can act as a kind of mood ring, one that actually does work.

The idea is that by tracking your movements and behaviours, your phone can detect whether you’re having a good or bad day.

Proponents of this theory suggest that someone who’s feeling low is likely to be more immobile (perhaps even staying at home) and less social – sending fewer emails and texts, and making less calls.

The opposite might be true for an individual who was in high spirits.

Now I’m slightly uneasy with this model, mainly because it seems to me that you could easily look inactive when you’re actually at home immersed in some kind of project you’re loving, so not communicating with others could in reality be the result of you having a great time.

Alternatively you could be rushing around making dozens of calls trying to solve some kind of crisis, stressing you out hugely.

I discuss this because I was contacted last week by one of the organisers of an initiative called the Mood Challenge, which is offering substantial and generous grants to studies which explore the use of the iPhone (it’s Apple-specific) as a way to better understand mood.

I know some Moodnudges readers are themselves researchers, and may be interested in applying, in which case I’m happy to pass on details of the Mood Challenge’s website:

But I’m also keen to open up a discussion about this in the Comments section below.

Do you think it’s possible to use “passive” monitoring on a phone to measure mood?

Passive in this sense means your phone would work out how you are, without you needing to do anything.

Or does it seem more likely that mood measurement requires “active” participation by the user – taking some kind of “test”, like the Moodscope one, or the questions in my imminent Nudge Your Way to Happiness book?

I think I’m pretty much in the second camp, but I’d love to know how you see it.

The mysterious case of the disappearing shop.

Depending on which part of the world you live in, they’re either thrift stores or charity shops, and I have to confess I’m a big fan.

With an hour to fill before I could start work the other day, I set out to visit the Goodwill store in Menlo Park, a town a little north of Palo Alto, where Stanford University sits.

It was a drizzly morning, but that didn’t put me off, so I parked the car near where I thought the store was, and walked purposefully along the street.

There was no sign of it.


I was certain it was on that section of the street.


So, having reached the end of the shopping area, I turned around and walked back, getting to the opposite end of the shops.

Still nothing.

Now this was getting odd, and I suspected the shop must have closed down.

I pulled out my phone and Google came to the rescue, telling me not only that it was just two blocks away, but also that it was open.

Half-thinking that Google must have got it wrong, I retraced my steps and there it was.

I’d walked right past it twice.

And just as Google had said it was indeed open.

It’s easy to do that, though, isn’t it?

(He said, hopefully.)

Sometimes we miss things that are right in front of us, and I don’t just mean physically.

The same can happen mentally.

We search for an answer, but the harder we struggle to come up with it, the more elusive it seems to get.

Google probably isn’t going to be much help when you seek the meaning of life (it tells you it’s 42, for goodness sake) but other people can often help you see things that may otherwise have been invisible to you.

Often, all you need to do is ask.

The first person you speak to may not have the answer, of course, nor might any of the others, for that matter.

But each of them is likely to help you gradually form a fuller picture, and that’s got to be better than continually missing the place you want to get to.

Ladies and Gentlemen. The Stanford Marching Band.


Sometimes it’s the smallest things that can give your mood a lift.

So here’s a suggestion.

I’m reasonably confident that as you go about the coming day you’ll come across something a little out of the ordinary.

It might be a tiny bird perched where you’d normally not expect it.

It could be a new building suddenly sprouting up, or fresh flowers somewhere new.

So when you spot this kind of thing, stop.

If you’re carrying something, put it down.

If you’re driving (and it’s safe) pull over.

Then just pay attention.

Enjoy the novelty and newness.

Shut out whatever you were thinking about before, especially if it was something unimportant.

Double-especially if it was something unhappy.

Then give yourself a few minutes to simply focus on this new thing that wasn’t there yesterday, and may not be tomorrow.

Last week I left the Stanford University library at 10 pm after another long day.

I was tired, ready to go home and get to bed.

But as the door closed behind me, I was delighted to hear, and then see, the Stanford Marching Band.

They’re a raggle-taggle bunch of high-spirited (and actually highly accomplished) musicians who perform at university sporting events.

I guess they were making their way back across campus after a sporting fixture of some kind.

Some had coloured lights on their instruments, and they played as they marched.

To an audience of…


Spectacular, and a complete gift.

I put my bags down and watched through the semi-darkness with a wide grin on my face, then walked back to the car with real spring in my step.

You’re probably not going to come across the Stanford Marching Band today (although if you do, please tell them I said hello) but I’d put money on there being something or other that’s different on your path through the next 24-hours.

So please, stop and pay attention.

It’ll be good for you, I promise.

A crucial question. WHY do you do WHAT you do?

In August 1963 250,000 people gathered in Washington DC to hear Martin Luther King, Jr deliver one of history’s most famous speeches.

“I have a dream,” he said, calling for an end to racism in the United States.

This remarkable day is mentioned in an enormously popular TED talk by the author Simon Sinek.

You can find it on YouTube.


Simon Sinek points out that in 1963 there was no website for people to find out about this speech, and very few invitations were issued.

No, people flocked there in their thousands that day because they’d heard that Martin Luther King had a passionate belief, and wanted to hear about it first hand from him.

“I have a dream,” he said.

Not “I have a plan.”

Simon Sinek uses this 1963 speech, along with other examples such as Apple and the Wright Brothers, to explain that people tend to follow leaders, causes, and organisations that understand their “Why.”

Martin Luther King dreamed of a better world through civil rights.

Apple set out to disrupt the status quo by putting computing in the hands of every person, not just every technologist.

The Wright Brothers knew they could change the world if they could show that humans could fly.

Simon Sinek’s talk is well worth a watch, as I’ve done recently on the recommendation of Annie, my trusty UK therapist.

Viewing it has led me to ask some profound questions of myself.

I know *what* I do day-to-day.

But *why* do I do it?

I’m working on this right now in a process which involves looking back at the highs and lows of my personal, business, and formative life.

It’s fascinating, and also a great reminder of how easy it is to go through life (as I have) knowing what you’re doing, but perhaps being far less mindful about why you’re doing it.

If you have a spare 20 minutes, I can highly recommend Simon Sinek’s talk – just Google his name and “Start With Why,” and my huge thanks to Annie for highlighting it.

Looks like I have a serious case of missing microbes.

This is part two of my story of having my gut bacteria tested by a San Francisco company called uBiome.

If you missed the first part yesterday, it’s here:

Anyway as I was saying, one of uBiome’s in-house experts, Richard Sprague, took me through my report after I’d submitted my “poopçon” sample.

Fascinatingly, Richard explained that I had no Bifidobacterium at all.




Now, Bifidobacterium is a genus of bacteria which most people have, but I don’t.

Even more fascinatingly, Richard went on to say that low levels of Bifidobacterium can be associated with low mood and anxiety.



Most of the experiments in this area have been done with laboratory mice, but that shouldn’t put us off because mice and humans share many aspects of their physiology.

So low levels of Bifidobacterium may be indicative of low mood.

What about *no* levels, then?

As I said, wow.

Another intriguing piece of learning for me was that my bacterial diversity is very poor compared to most people’s.

It’s generally accepted that having plenty of different bacterial varieties is a good thing, but I’m way down in the 12th percentile, which means that something like 90% of people have more diverse microbiomes than me.

Without going into too much detail, one reason for this could be that I take a Lansoprazole capsule every day.

Have done for years.

They were prescribed by a doctor ages ago in an effort to cure an intermittent swallowing problem I’d had for years, and they certainly seemed to work in this respect.

I’d even been hospitalised twice before I started taking Lansoprazole, but haven’t needed any emergency admissions since then.

Lansoprazole, however, is a proton-pump inhibitor, a type of medication which significantly reduces gastric acid production.

You might imagine that an acidic environment wouldn’t be one in which microorganisms would flourish, but bacteria are funny old things.

Sometimes they actually need low pH (acidic) conditions.

So I feel a self-experiment coming on.

I’ve ordered myself a bottle of Bifidobacterium supplements, currently sitting in the fridge awaiting use, and I need to make a decision about the Lansoprazole (which isn’t a prescription medication in the USA, unlike in the UK. You can buy it in the supermarket.)

My plan is to take the supplements for a month, then get my gut bacteria checked again, while also tracking my mood.

I’ll report back, but I already find this gut-brain connection deeply interesting.

Definitely remember, as I said yesterday, that I’m neither a doctor nor a psychiatrist, so please make up your own mind about what I’ve described to you.

But wouldn’t it be truly remarkable if, in the future, depression could be treated with a daily pot of probiotic yoghurt?

What’s bugging me? I may be about to find out.

I’ve made a fascinating discovery in the past few days, and it’s prompting me to conduct some self-experimentation.

As you know, I’m not a physician, psychiatrist or psychologist, so please read the following with that caveat in mind.

I’m simply telling you because I think you’ll be interested.

Over the last year I’ve been doing some writing for the San Francisco start-up where Alexandra Carmichael works.

Alex also helped to found Moodnudges.

This company is uBiome, and they carry out DNA analysis of the bacteria that’s in and on every human body.


The scientific name for this ecosystem of trillions of bugs is the microbiome, and far from being yucky, we mostly couldn’t live without these tiny blighters.

The average human (yup, you probably) carries about six pounds of bacteria, enough in volume to fill a large soup can, and they help our bodies do vital things like digest cellulose and metabolise vitamins.

That’s your “good bacteria.”

But then there’s the less-good bacteria, of course.

Things like Clostridium difficile, and Staphylococcus aureus, the “S.A.” in M.R.S.A., one of the main causes of hospital-acquired infections.

Fortunately most of us aren’t troubled by nasties like these.

But what can you tell from having your “regular” bacteria checked out?

uBiome run their tests by having people like you and me send them a sample which can be swabbed from several different body sites, the gut being the most common one, in which case you simply have to wipe a cotton bud over a piece of, er, used toilet paper.

You then swirl the cotton bud in a little vial of stabilising fluid, pop it into a supplied padded envelope, then mail it back to uBiome in San Francisco where they place it in their DNA sequencing equipment to do its magic.

A few weeks later you can access their findings online, showing you how much of many different types of bacteria you have in comparison to the thousands upon thousands of others uBiome has tested.

So, a little while ago I did this swabbing thing and dispatched a “soupçon of poop” to uBiome, and last week got to talk through my results with uBiome’s new citizen-science-in-residence, Richard Sprague.

What he told me had me riveted.

So just what did he say?

Well I’ll tell you tomorrow.

Sorry, I know that’s a total tease, but I’m genuinely running out of space today.

Why you’re absolutely, positively, categorically great, just as you are

I wouldn’t embarrass them by naming them, but throughout my life there have been people I knew who I’d have given anything to have been more like.

Some were more successful academically.

Some were funnier.

Some seemed more popular.

Some had more good fortune in the romance department.


In fact, once I start it seems as if I could write a very long list of those who were more creative, more musically-gifted, more athletic, more confident.

On the face of it, these could be the words of someone with low self-esteem.

Actually, however, I’m pretty certain I wasn’t that different from most people.

I suspect it’s simply human nature to compare and contrast yourself with others, and to see qualities in them that you wish you possessed.

Of course, an attitude such as this tends to ignore the fact that you’re certain to have skills, talents and abilities that others admire.

And taken to extremes it suggests that you aspire to a world in which everyone’s great, but everyone’s the same.

What a dull old place that would be, however.

Surely it’s the fact that we’re all different to some degree that makes life so rich?

Aren’t you glad you’re an individual rather than just another member of a bland crowd?

In a car park full of monochrome silver/grey/black/white vehicles, wouldn’t it actually be rather nice to be the bright yellow model that stands out brightly?

It’s easier to believe that everything would be better if only you could be more like (insert name).

Almost certainly, however, it wouldn’t.

Almost certainly this person has their own set of difficulties of which you know nothing.

Isn’t it better to accept who you are?

And isn’t it EVEN better to celebrate your individuality?