A year in pixels: my mood journal, 2020

Let’s talk about happiness….and sadness, anxiety, stress, and more. Let’s talk about moods. From the 7th of January until the 31st December, 2020, I kept a mood journal. It started on a a whim and I didn’t much care how long I kept it up. It was more about experimenting with my self-awareness than it was about tracking anything meaningful. I was pleasantly surprised by how useful an activity it was for me; especially in such an unpredictable, changing year.

For this blog, I wanted to give you all the tools to test out a mood journal for yourself. I’ll look at how moods and emotions are different, explain how to setup a mood journal and share with you what a year of mood tracking taught me.

What are moods?

Moods are surprisingly tricky to define. In some ways, they are the same as emotions – they are both feelings that arise within us. In other ways, they are quite different. One of the places I tend to seek definitions is the dictionary.

According to Merriam-Webster, a mood is:

 a conscious state of mind or predominant emotion

While an emotion is:

a conscious mental reaction (such as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as strong feeling usually directed toward a specific object and typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body

Based on this comparison, we can see that a key difference between a mood and an emotion is reacting to an object. For example, while eating an ice cream on a summer day might make you feel the emotion of joy, a joyful mood may exist even when you are not participating in any specific activity.

There are two more key difference between moods and emotions which fit well with my experience, and seem to be repeated in various sources I’ve explored:

  1. Moods last longer than emotions: emotions are sharp, short and strongly felt. Moods tend to be more muted but also harder to shake.
  2. It’s more difficult to find the trigger for a mood than an emotion: while a certain object, activity or interaction may trigger an emotion; moods are far harder to pin down. They can build up through multiple triggers over time and stay with you even as your direct triggers dissolve.

How I created my mood journal

As a writer, it should come as no surprise that I’ve always been a journal fan. Scattered around my home – mostly hidden in plain sight – are a range of thought journals, travel scrapbooks and brainstorm notepads. I use most of them sporadically, when the need arises. For this journal, I wanted to create a habit. As part of my mindfulness journey, I wanted to commit to a daily (or even weekly) practice. I’d seen plenty of bullet journal inspiration on the internet and liked the idea. However, a single box on a page didn’t suit how I liked to journal. So, instead I created a hybrid.

The journal setup

I used the concept of a ‘Year in Pixels’ to select my moods while leaving space to write short notes about my day. I wanted to keep it to a 5 minute activity, so I’d be more likely to keep it up. For this reason, I chose a weekly planner for my journal. It had one week to a double-page spread and I hand drew a set of boxes on each day. I also bought a set of coloured felt tip pens so that each mood had its own colour. The end result looked like this:

The moods

One of the good things about minimising my space was it forced me to be selective with my moods. I had to really consider which ones were most prominent to keep the boxes to a set amount. Of course, feelings are rarely simple, so I did also leave space for an ‘other’ category. My categories were:

  • Happy
  • Sad
  • Anxious
  • Stressed
  • Other

I tried not to rely on picking ‘other’ as an easy out when I couldn’t place a mood. If I was feeling angry or irritated I tried to place the mood – was it from stress? In the end, ‘other’ became somewhat of a neutral mood. I wasn’t up or down; just content.

The daily practice

It was important for this practice to be simple and speedy. I decided to use the journal each night before bed – mostly because I’m not a morning person. Once or twice I did forget, but it actually became a strong habit for me and one I looked forward to. Other times, writing a few notes about my day would open up more that I wanted to journal about – so I swapped to another notebook and continued. In a lot of ways, it brought a sense of closure and peace to my days. Allowing me to mentally ‘sign off’ and move on.

What did my mood journal teach me?

The reason I’m writing this article, and bothering to share my method at all,  is because it was useful to me. I gained a lot from just one year of mood tracking and I think other people might too. Here are some of the most important benefits I experienced from mood journaling.

I learnt my physical symptoms for moods

By tracking my moods daily, I was more aware of the physical sensations that different moods presented. Anything from gut issues to insomnia, exhaustion, muscle tension and headaches could stem from a bad mood. In a good mood, I felt energised and confident, and often more playful.

I learnt more about my mood triggers

Mood triggers can be big, like being promoted or losing your job, and small, like a great coffee or a burnt one. We tend to recognise the big mood enhancers or detractors, but what about the smaller ones? My mood journal helped me to identify a number of my personal triggers of all sizes. Examples include:

  • Unbalanced socialising: not enough alone time (introversion) or too much (isolation).
  • Low-quality sleep: both triggered by a mood (e.g. anxiety) and at times the cause of moods (e.g. sadness, stress).
  • Food choices: being too busy to take the time for proper, filling meals could throw me off for days.
  • The weather: humidity, heat and too much wind drive me mad. Clear, cool days or the occasional thunderstorm while I’m hiding in bed are pure and simple joys.

I learnt how to identify patterns of negativity

Tracking my moods allowed me to reflect on a week with ease. This made it easier to pick up on patterns of negativity (or positivity). I could clearly see what had triggered my moods and if able, make changes.

I learnt when to indulge, rather than regulate

We each have some control over our moods. When we identify triggers, we can do certain things to minimise bad moods or, perhaps even to stimulate good moods. Exercise, food, socialising, sleep, music and mindfulness are all simple examples of mood regulators. One thing I learned not to do was to deny my moods. Sometimes it’s far better to indulge in comfort food and rest to nurture yourself in a bad mood than it is to attempt to make it disappear.

The best way I can think to describe this is through choosing a movie genre. Sometimes you are in the mood for a dramatic tearjerker. Other nights call for musicals or comedy. You wouldn’t pick a movie that you didn’t feel like watching; why try to force yourself in or out of a mood?

I learnt that moods are ever-changing

The biggest lesson I am taking from my mood journal is that moods were made to fluctuate. So many of us wish for endless happiness but it’s a pointless goal. Life will serve you moments of stress, anger, sadness and everything else between. Rather than fighting your moods, learn to roll with them. There is one condition for this; don’t leave yourself in a low mood forever. If you are struggling with negativity, depression, anxiety or anything else – seek help. It’s out there and it’s more accessible than ever.