Friday, October 30, 2009

Not in the Mood

Never underestimate the power of mood on your thinking and behaviour. Many of us know the experience of being in a good mood or getting carried away by a pleasant shopping environment and being lulled into buying something that we later regret. We’ve probably all had the experience of looking at ourselves in the mirror and not liking what we see or being unable to find that “right” thing to wear. We find ourselves being critical of how we look and being unable to find something to wear that looks good. Yet at other times, we look in the mirror and are happy (or happy enough) with the image that is reflected there. Our physical appearance hasn’t changed. What has changed is our mood. Our mood can be a powerful filter of reality.

When we are in a low mood, we are much more likely to selectively scan our environments and notice things that we might not notice otherwise. Some of us may have been accused of being “picky”, “critical”, or “negative “during these times. Not only are we likely to selectively pick out “irritants” in our environment, we are likely to interpret them more negatively when we are in a low mood. Conversely, when our mood is a bit brighter, we may not notice the potential “irritants” in our environment or we may interpret situations in a different way. In a low mood, a friend being late for a dinner date, may be evidence of their insensitivity or selfishness, whereas when we are in a lighter mood we might be more likely to feel worried or puzzled by their lateness and investigate the situation further.

Our moods can even trigger memories specific to that mood state. So when we are in a low mood, we are likely to remember other times that we had a low mood and all of the details of that time. In that low mood, we may find it more difficult to remember happier times. It’s like all of our happier memories are stored in one area and our sad or angry memories are stored somewhere else. What this means is that memories are unreliable. Our memories can be filtered through our moods. By paying attention to only some memories because of our mood at the time, we are unable to access other memories that might bring more balance to our thinking about a situation.

The failure of so many self-improvement or self-change strategies such as dieting and fitness may be attributable to moods as well. When we are feeling confident and happy, we can easily make goals that may fall apart when we hit a low mood. It almost seems like we can be an entirely different person depending on our mood; with goals, memories and thoughts specific to those different mood states. I think that in setting successful goals for ourselves we need to be “realistic” and not just think from the experience of being in a more elated mood. We may also want to predict and plan for how we are going to stick with these goals when the inevitable low mood hits us.

We likely have little control over our moods just like we have little control over the weather. Trying to fix our moods can be beset with other problems. Becoming aware and even “mindful” that we are vulnerable to experiencing our lives very differently depending on our moods is of critical importance. Learning more about the connection between our thinking and our moods is also an important skill in navigating some of the potholes along the highway of life.



T J. Mark G. Williams, John D. Teasdale , Zindel V. Segal , Jon Kabat-Zinn. The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness . The Guilford Press, 2007.

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