Monthly Archives: February 2018

How writing to a friend can really help you

I’d like to start today with a belated apology to readers who weren’t part of the Signpost trial that began at the end of January.

I became so immersed in it, that last week’s usual Moodnudge fell through a crack in the floorboards.

So I’m sorry if it seemed I might have disappeared from the face of the earth.

If you didn’t participate in the Signpost experiment and missed knowing what it entailed, let me explain, very briefly.

Signpost is an app I’m developing.

After prompting you with a daily text message, it asks you to check in via a 10-item questionnaire.

The questions evaluate your overall mood, and also check for possible underlying issues that might be affecting you – are you, for example, feeling anxious or angry?

Depending on these issues, you then hear my recorded feedback: a kind of audio moodnudge, hopefully tailored to your current state of mind.

I say “hopefully,” because for what you might call an interesting couple of days during the trial, the app unhelpfully told just about everyone that they were angry, when they weren’t.

As I said at the time in an email to participants, even if they weren’t feeling it to begin with, being wrongly labelled as angry could well be enough to rile anyone.

Signpost enables you to see your progress on a graph, to which you can add notes and explanations that may help you make sense of your ups and downs.

As a few people pointed out, Signpost seems to combine most of the different mood-management techniques I’ve explored over the years, into one overall idea.

Over 200 people took part in what turned out to be a two-week experiment, and more than half filled in a questionnaire leaving detailed feedback about their experiences.

The majority seemed to greatly enjoy the app, with only a few saying that it wasn’t for them (which I completely understood).

What’s more, and I honestly hadn’t anticipated this, there was an overall average mood lift of 7.5 points (on a 0-100 scale) across 14 days, which allows me to cautiously conclude that it was doing people some good.

I went into testing the prototype largely to experiment with the mechanics – sending text messages, providing audio (rather than written) feedback, for example, so for me to learn that it was actually helping people was really promising.

The more challenging part of the feedback process, however, was my realisation that many see the app developing in one of two ways.

Some regard it as a tool for anyone, really, who’s going through what what you might say are the normal emotional ups and downs of everyday life.

Others, though, view Signpost as being squarely aimed at people going through a particularly difficult time – those who are experiencing significant depression or anxiety, for example.

Currently, I therefore find myself at something of a crossroads (‘twas ever thus, for me!) as I’m pretty sure it’s not really viable to make one tool serve two purposes.

You might say that I need to decide whether I’m building a hammer or a screwdriver.

Having said this (and I’m literally just seeing this as I write), whichever we decide to develop now, won’t stop us using the same underlying methods (check-in via a questionnaire, get audio support, track progress on graph, add annotations) to create the “other.”

With steel and wood, you can build both a hammer and a screwdriver.

One at a time though, perhaps.

Hmm. It feels good to have gained some clarity, which I certainly didn’t have when I started writing this an hour ago.

Perhaps it’s a lesson to us both of the power of putting thoughts down on paper?

If you’re currently at some kind of crossroads yourself, right now, maybe consider explaining your situation in a message to a friend (which is actually how I regard this piece of writing to you).

Maybe, when we describe dilemmas to others, it actually helps us line up our own thinking.

In conclusion, I’m still not clear whether the hammer or screwdriver should come first, but at least I now know they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

So, who are you going to write to you about your situation?

Random Acts of Kindness Day

I’d love to claim credit for having planned it this way, but the fact that the final day of our Signpost trial happens to have fallen on Random Acts of Kindness Day is – appropriately – entirely random.

Two weeks after we started this journey, we end it by being encouraged to do something unexpectedly kind for someone, perhaps anonymously.

I’ll be in touch with everyone who has taken part in the trial, with a link to a short survey that will enable me to gather overall feedback, but right now, perhaps you have thoughts about today’s message specifically? Do, please, share away.

I’m in the forest

Something a little different for our daily Signpost catch-up today, as you’ll find me amidst the redwood trees in Huddart Park, near Woodside, California.

It seemed a good opportunity to remind us both of the emotional well-being benefits of getting out in nature, so – microphone in hand – off to the forest I went.

Maybe you’ve experienced moments of feeling great, out in nature? Why not share your story?

Valentine’s Day: it’s not always easy

Valentine’s Day isn’t always the easiest of days, particularly if you happen to be going through a tricky time. For a celebration that’s supposed to be all about love and connection, some can actually find it difficult and lonely.

Today on Signpost we’ve talked through some strategies that could help, but it’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all issue. What do you think about Valentine’s Day? Do you embrace it, or try to escape it?

Let’s share thoughts.


Shrove Tuesday – pancakes with a dash of self-examination

March 13th is Shrove Tuesday, and Mardi Gras. In the UK this means pancakes, while in the USA Mardi Gras is a time to make merry. Any excuse.

Actually, though, some religions view the day as a special time for self-examination, so perhaps this is a good time to look a little deeper inside yourself, being careful of course to avoid rumination.

Neuroscientist and mindfulness expert Dr. Daniel Siegel recommends a strategy he calls COAL (Curious, Open, Accepting, and Loving) to keep things on track.

So where will self-exploration take you today? What are you thinking about Signpost?

And, anyone for pancakes? [Yes please. Ed.]

Please feel free to add to the conversation.

February 11th – National Inventors’ Day, and curiosity

Today sees the start of another Signpost experiment, when I’ll be producing the recorded signposts just about as close to live as is possible. There’s also now the possibility of seeing what others feel about the day’s content, and contributing your own thoughts if you like.

Today is National Inventors’ Day in the USA, the anniversary of the birth of Thomas Edison, a man who knew a thing or two about the power of curiosity – the central theme of today’s signposts.

Please feel free to add to the conversation. No rules. We’re making this up as we go!

Pointing in the right direction again

Enormous thanks for your patience, which has allowed me the space today to (a) properly work out what had gone wrong with Signpost, (b) put it right, and (c) introduce a few new surprises that I hope you’ll enjoy.

As this email is going out, I’m reinstating the text reminder system, so your usual messages should start appearing again soon (unless, of course, you’d previously asked me to stop them).

As I suspected, the feedback had got pretty messed up, with lots of “angry” conclusions drawn where they shouldn’t have been. Things should be a lot better now.

One small but important change is that the 11th question when you check in, which asks about your overall emotional state, now has the answer “So-so” in place of “Reasonably good.”

You’d be quite right to suggest that the “temperature” of this answer has gone down a notch. Whereas “reasonably good” indicated a somewhat positive emotional state, “so-so” is clearly more neutral. A bit kind of “meh,” if you like.

The logic behind this is that if you judge your overall state as “good,” the system will take that at face value, so it won’t try to persuade you that you are in fact, for example, angry (promise).

However, any other answer to this question – “So-so,” “A little difficult,” or “Difficult” – will cause the system to look at your underlying emotions, in order to discover what might be going on behind the scenes for you.

If you don’t want to know, for some reason, just answer “Good” to question 11, but if you’re happy to explore, give one of the other three responses.

You’ll find that the short text descriptions under the audio control strip have now been replaced with a simple list of your individual responses for that day, grouped into happiness-related, anxiety-related, and anger-related feelings.

In addition, one of three smiley emoticons sits alongside each of the ten feelings/emotions to indicate whether your response is likely to be making a positive, neutral, or negative impact on your overall emotional state.

Sorry of this sounds a bit complicated, but if you look back at your previous signposts, I think it will all become clear.

I felt this would be a sensible move, enabling you to make your own judgements about individual days, rather than having a computer program trying to sum things up for you, which I think is always going to sound weirdly artificial.

I’ve tried to work as thoroughly as possible today (Thursday) so I really hope your Signpost experience will be tons better when you next visit, which I trust will be soon.

Do please feel free to let me know what you think. I’d love to get a conversation going, and you won’t have to wait for me to wake up on Friday morning!

Brilliant book. Rocket reaction.

Around one-in-ten Moodnudges readers already know what I’m going to say.

Does this mean we have a lot of mind readers in our database?

Well, possibly not.

The truth is that about 10% of our readership is currently taking part in the trial of Signpost, the new emotional health management tool we’re building.

What these trialists will know is that this week has been what you might call eventful.

A calculation hiccup resulted in some people being told they were angry when they weren’t.

I joked (nervously) that even if they weren’t actually annoyed to start with, being told this might irritate the heck out of someone.

Fortunately, everyone concerned seems to have taken it with good grace, understanding that these kinds of wobbles are the very reason you run pilot tests.

In fact, it gave me renewed joy to be reminded that you and our other readers are just so very, very nice.

What a fabulous community we have here, frankly.

In between discovering how physically tiring it can be when you exert yourself mentally, as I tried to fix the “anger-stat” (and a great reminder of how intrinsically linked physical and mental health are) I’ve also been enjoying reading a new book by Johann Hari: Lost Connections.

In his book, Hari argues that a great deal of depression may actually be due, not to disease, but to someone’s life circumstances.

Now there’s a thing.

If you feel friendless, lonely, or under-appreciated, he suggests, slipping into depression might simply be a natural reaction to unpleasant situations, rather than a chemical imbalance in the brain.

I am of course grossly oversimplifying the book’s theories, but they do really make sense to me.

Johann Hari has come under fire from some in the psychiatry profession, who claim he is suggesting that antidepressant medicines serve no purpose at all, and that he is claiming that people can recover from depression by making, on the face of it, simple life changes.

(Although you and I both probably know that, when you’re depressed, nothing is ever simple. Nothing.)

Actually, Hari doesn’t deny the usefulness of meds to some.

What he does say, though, and I think he makes the point strongly, is that medication must never be the only tool in the box.

And in fact this is entirely the view I’ve taken since Caroline, Adrian, and I started Moodscope in 2007, and also while I’ve been Moodnudging since my transplant to California in 2013.

Simple things like getting out in nature, connecting with others, remembering to be grateful, getting healthy exercise… these are all surefire ways to boost your mood.

As I say, I’m relishing Johann Hari’s book, which you may also enjoy. It’s a fast-paced, definitely not heavy, piece of writing.

My heartfelt thanks, as ever, to all those who are experimenting with Signpost, and my heartfelt thanks to you for reading today’s nudge.

If you fall into both camps, well, consider yourself impeccably thanked.

One last thing: that rocket launch on Tuesday.

Boy oh boy, what a magnificent achievement by Elon Musk and SpaceX, almost certainly doing their bit to lift the world’s mood.

Along, of course, with a cherry-red Tesla roadster carrying a Starman, who’d like to come and meet us, but who thinks he’d blow our mind.

He certainly blew mine.