The app that tells you if you’re happy

Emotion Sense, developed by a team at Cambridge University, collects data and user responses to determine when people are likely to feel highly stressed.

08 May 2013


A new app designed to track your mood throughout the day could turn your smartphone into a veritable pocket therapist.

Researchers at Cambridge University have developed an application that combines a variety of data to highlight when people are likely to be at their most stressed or at their most relaxed, and determine what drives people's emotional peaks and troughs.

The free Android app, called Emotion Sense, works by gathering data - such as where users are and who they're communicating with - and linking it up with the user's own report about mood.

Researchers say the product could have significant implications for psychological therapy and improving wellbeing.

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'Quite unique'

Although there are plenty of mood-tracking apps out there, the Cambridge team say their project is the first time that user data and phone information sources have been combined.

"Most other attempts at software like this are coarse-grained in terms of their view of what a feeling is," explained Dr Jason Renfrow, senior lecturer in the department of psychology at the University of Cambridge.

"Many just look at emotions in terms of feeling happy, sad, angry or neutral. The aim here is to use a more flexible approach, to collect data that shows how moods vary between people. That is something which we think is quite unique to the system we have designed."

When Emotion Sense is first opened, one sensor is unlocked. The app then spends about a week collecting data from this sensor, testing it against the user's emotional state.

At the end of this process, the user is asked to complete a short life satisfaction survey, which then unlocks a new sensor. After roughly eight weeks, all the sensors, which collect a range of data including how sociable someone is (based on the number of texts they send or calls they make) and how much they use their mobile phones, will have been unlocked.

Journey of discovery

Once the app has collected information, the user is then asked to complete a brief survey to clarify their emotional state.

Throughout the day the app will also send the user a notification - a bit like receiving a text message - to ask them how they are feeling.

The Cambridge team describe this systematic approach as a "journey of discovery" for the user, giving them a step-by-step insight into what might be influencing their own mood swings.

The team hope that by combining the two sets of data the app will be able to show what drives people's emotional peaks, showing, for example, when they are likely to be at their most stressed, or when they feel most relaxed.

This will help, for example, doctors to devise therapies and individuals to determine the times they are most stressed.

"Behind the scenes, smartphones are constantly collecting data that can turn them into a key medical and psychological tool," said Dr Neal Lathia, a research associate at Cambridge's Computer Laboratory.

"Any smartphone now comes with numerous sensors that can tell you about aspects of your life, like how active you are, or how sociable you have been in the past 24 hours. In the long term, we hope to be able to extract that data so that, for example, it can be used for therapeutic purposes."

'Ongoing link'

Emotion Sense is part of a wider research initiative called Ubiquitous and Social Computing for Positive Behaviour Change, or UBhave, which aims to see just how far mobile phones can be used to monitor people's behaviour and, where appropriate, change it for the better to improve their health and wellbeing.

"Most people who see a therapist may only have an appointment once every fortnight," said Dr Cecilia Mascolo, a reader in mobile systems at the Cambridge Computer Lab.

"Many, however, keep their phones with them most of the time. In terms of sheer presence, mobiles can provide an ongoing link with a person."