The Quantified Self: New Avenues for Positive Psychology Research and Application - Part 3: Why do People Quantify? What the Heck is Going On Here?!?

The Quantified Self : Origins

The notion of marrying technology with self-improvement originated in San Francisco, where Gary Wolf, a journalist and author, co-founded the Quantified Self blog along with Kevin Kelly in 2007. Wolf noticed that an eclectic mix of individuals, who generally were early adopters, personal development fanatics, fitness freaks, and those suffering from chronic illnesses, began utilizing technology to measure and track their everyday activities.  The idea of measuring things to chart progress towards objectives and goals is humdrum amongst corporations.  But the use of metrics by individuals has until recently been less widespread, with the exception of people stepping on their bathroom scales with hopes of tracking their weight loss.  It could be safe to say that most people do not track their sleeping patterns, how much alcohol they drink, their moods, their energy and activity levels, or how much time one spends reading articles on the internet.  Recent advances in technology have allowed individuals to collect and analyze data about their everyday experiences with hopes of discovering patterns and occurrences that will ultimately improve their lives.  Individuals can create self-experiments that can be used to record a specific piece of data, remind them to perform a certain action, or both. 

Why Do People Track & Quantify Their Experiences?

According to Wolf, there three overarching reasons why people track themselves:

  1. They have a specific goal, such as weight loss or sleeping better. 
  2. They are curious.  People see collecting data as helpful in maintaining overall self-awareness. It is like keeping a quantitative diary.
  3. They believe personal data is an investment that will pay off in the future.  They want to establish a baseline with which to measure future changes.  

In cases 2 and 3, self-tracking is part of an exploratory worldview in which the key goal is learning through the process of data collection and interpretation.  Often times, a goal-oriented tracking project can transform into a curiosity-driven exploration, which then may shift into a new way of life.  Overall, self-quantifiers believe that they can increase control over their own lives, free themselves from destructive habits, and pursue and achieve meaningful goals armed with the utmost insight.

Where is the Quantified Self Happening?

Online

The Quantified Self website, which is the central hub of the movement, has the credo, “Self-Knowledge Through Numbers.”  On this website, self-quantifiers and toolmakers who share an interest in self-knowledge through self-tracking exchange information about personal projects, the tools they use to pursue these projects, and the lessons they have learned along the way.  This is done via the blog or the interactive forums.

Meetups

Though the bulk of sharing between self-quantifiers takes place online, an important aspect of the Quantified Self movement is the real-world social gathering and sharing component.  These show and tell meetings provide an opportunity for QS people to meet and learn from each other in their respective local areas.  These meetups, which are organized via Meetup.com, are structured around three central questions:

a) What are you doing?

b) How are you doing it?, and

c) What did you learn?

The vast majority of these meetups are held in the United States and Europe.  They take place in cities and urban areas where people are very plugged in to technology.  The people that live in these areas have the financial means to utilize technology.  These meetups take place in cultures that are individualistic rather than collectivist.

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QS Meetups Around the World

The Quantified Self as a Community of Practice

The Quantified Self movement is an example of a “community of practice,” and in this case, one that exists online as well as in the real world (Brown & Duguid, 1991).   Communities of practice are places where members participate in common practices, depend on one another, identify themselves as part of something larger, and commit themselves to their own and group’s well-being (Preskill & Torres, 2000).  These communities of practice typically come together voluntarily and are drawn by a common force (Brown & Duguid, 1991).  In this case the common force is an intense curiosity and drive for personal growth and self-knowledge. 

 The most active communities of practice in the self-experimentation movement revolve around health and chronic illness.  For example, on MedHelp, one of the largest Internet forums for health information, more than 30,000 new personal tracking projects are started by users every month.  On CureTogether, another online health forum, people suffering from various forms of mental and physical illnesses share with others the types of treatments they are trying, and how they are working or not working.  In these types of online communities of practice, problem solving becomes more of a social activity than just a detached, analytical, and isolated process.  Preskill and Torres (2000) promote the social constructivist learning that takes place when individuals are reviewing information together.  When individuals are provided with opportunities for constructivist learning, they are often transformed by their experiences. 

Implications for Positive Psychology

The amount of data being collected and shared amongst these online and offline communities of practice is staggering; however, the majority of these communities, approach solving growth from the traditional deficit-based approach.  This is quite an opportunity for positive psychology to establish its own communities of practice, both online and off, structured around thriving.  Why not create and promote communities specifically centered around engagement, meaning, and happiness?  These communities of practice can be founded upon the empirical knowledge base of positive psychology, yet still encourage a social constructivist approach to learning for those wishing to participate.  This marriage between positive psychology and self-experimentation would be quite the symbiotic relationship.  Positive psychology could tap into the endless amounts of data these communities provide to learn more about what is important and meaningful to people who are actually active and concerned about self-knowledge and improvement.  Why wait for a grant to be funded when data can be collected at the click of an e-mail blast to online community members?  Why struggle to establish a new database when there are naturalistic databases being formed and reformed at a continual rate? The ecological validity that these naturally forming databases could provide positive psychology is astounding.

In return, these communities can be better informed if led by the empirically-based research foundations that positive psychology is assembling.   Individuals can design their own self-tracking projects based on the latest findings from our field, and thus hopefully will be more likely to succeed in living a thriving life. Inevitably, problems and ethical challenges will arise in regards to collecting, organizing, operationalizing, re-coding, and restructuring data from these communities into more scientifically acceptable forms.  I would argue that the benefits in doing so will far outweigh the costs.  This self-quantification movement is very important to the evolution of positive psychology.

What do you think?

Further Reading and References:

Brown, J. S., & Duguid, P. (1991). Organizational learning and communities of practice: Toward a unified view of working, learning, and innovation.  Organization Science, 2(1), 40-57.

Preskill, H., & Torres, R. T. (2000).  The learning dimension of evaluation use.  New Directions for Evaluation.  88, 25-38.