Today I have the pleasure of interviewing one of my first Internet buddies, James Bishop, who runs the site and writes the Finding Optimism blog which has been voted as one of the top depression blogs by Psych Central. James also is the brainiac behind Optimism Software, a tool to help you track your mood.

Question: Why did you develop the software, James? Was there a certain “Aha!” moment you’d like to share with us, as though you were sitting on the Oprah set?

James: An “Aha!” moment? Yes, I’ve had lots of those.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder about 6 years ago, and I started on the difficult path of finding appropriate treatment. At the same time Anna started keeping a paper health journal. In 2004 I took part in a 6-part education course for people with Bipolar, and was introduced for the first time to the concepts of “triggers” and “wellness strategies”. This changed my orientation towards my treatment, from being a passive recipient of medicines to an active participant in my own well-being. While medicine was the backbone of my treatment, I now understood that to really “live well” I needed to make other changes.

I soon became frustrated with the paper journal, and turned to my old friend Excel to manage the data better. Perhaps the biggest “Aha!” was discovering, by looking at the data, that there was a connection between my diet and moods. We later found that I am very sensitive to preservatives and other artificial additives. My mood deteriorates a couple of days after eating culprit foods, and the storm cloud hangs around for about 5 days. It took us a couple of years to spot this pattern in my mood, and we wouldn’t have seen it without the spreadsheet. I thought “wow”, imagine what else people could find using this system.

Since then I’ve found many things that trigger my depression, that help me to recognize a fresh episode is coming, and that help me stay well. All along I’ve felt that anyone else with a mood disorder would benefit from being proactive with tracking their health. So I tossed it around in my mind for a couple of years, and then decided to build the Taj Mahal of mood diaries.

Question: What are five good reasons to track your mood?

James: In a nutshell, the reason for tracking your mood is to learn more about yourself and achieve better health.

1. Triggers and warning signs. By using a mood diary you can monitor the patterns in your life and identify negative influences (or “triggers”) that you need to avoid, and early warning signs that your health is deteriorating.

2. Wellness strategies. A mood diary can help you to find the small things, as well as the big, that help you to stay well. It can show you the impact of the positive strategies that you adopt on your well-being.

3. Planning for health. Optimism is a case in point. It is designed for a person to bring together an understanding of their triggers, early warning signs or symptoms, and wellness strategies. It gives them a better understanding of their health and helps them to develop a plan for remaining well. That is the key. The purpose of a mood diary should be to plan for wellness, not just keep a record of illness.

4. Actively participate. Rather than be a passive recipient of treatment, or just seek treatment in reaction to a new episode, a mood diary can help you to have more involvement in your health and a sense of control. In general people achieve better health outcomes when they educate themselves and are proactive about their health.

5. A health professional’s dream. By keeping a mood diary you can provide your health professional with a precise, detailed history. It removes the problem of memory recall and gives an accurate picture of what has been happening. It gets to the bottom of what is or isn’t working, which helps them to give more relevant, appropriate advice and treatment.

Every person’s illness is different. As I read elsewhere today, “One Size Fits One”. For many people treatment is difficult, a slow process, or not entirely successful. A good mood diary is an effective way to increase the chance of success.