Could Bad Moods Be Good For You?

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So much has been said about positive thinking and the power of being happy. A good mood certainly has benefits, but no one talks about the drawbacks. You’d think, based on popular opinion, that being in a good mood is the recipe for success. In reality, both good and bad moods have advantages and drawbacks. Yes, there can be benefits to being in a bad mood. And, yes, there can be drawbacks to being in a good mood. Sound counter-intuitive? Stay with me.

Are good moods always good?

Your brain works differently depending on what mood you are in. You’re probably already aware of some obvious effects. Maybe you’ve noticed that you feel more inspired to strike up friendly conversation on the elevator, you feel more trusting, and studies show you are also more likely to perform well in situations that require quick thinking when you are in a good mood. When you’re happy, there is a certain amount of cognitive ease–the ability for your brain to function with little effort and make choices without too much thought. Your impulses are more accurate. Your social reactions are more intuitive. A good mood can greatly increase your confidence and your willingness to be spontaneous. But there are downsides to your good mood, depending on what your brain needs to accomplish in the moment.

Things the self-help gurus don’t tell you

For all the benefits of being in a good mood, it isn’t very helpful for solving difficult problems. Sure, it increases your confidence about whatever decision you might make, but it decreases the chance you will make an intelligent choice, and increases the chance you will choose impulsively, and perhaps poorly. It doesn’t help you process complicated information, in fact, it makes you want to avoid it. A good mood might make you feel capable of finishing your research paper today, but that same mood is likely to dissipate quickly as you begin performing the actual task. A good mood can result in a desire to skip work entirely and go wandering the fields. Which is fine, unless you need to get that work done.

On the other hand, being in a bad mood can have benefits. When you are unhappy, you tend to be more skeptical and less trusting, which can help you make more intelligent decisions and arrive at more logical conclusions. In a bad mood, everything seems to take more mental effort, and when your brain is willing to exert more mental effort, it often accomplishes cognitive tasks that would have been nearly impossible if you were bubbly happy and bent on doing things the easy way.

Heating up the motherboard

Think of your brain like a computer. A competent computer can perform simple tasks, such as calculating or running a word processing application, with very little effort. If you try editing 4K video on the same machine, you may notice the interface begin to lag and the computer begin to heat up. Difficult computing tasks push the processor to its limits, drawing on a large portion of system resources to meet the demand. Sometimes you can get similar results when you attempt to do a lot of small tasks simultaneously. The machine is straining to perform under demanding conditions, and sometimes that is exactly what we need it to do.

Try it, but you might not like it

You can try this for yourself. Sit down with a few challenging math problems. Record yourself trying to work them out. Go back and watch that recording, and you’re likely to notice your expression changes as you are forced to think harder in order to solve the problem. When confronted with hard concepts or challenging puzzles, your face takes on an expression of displeasure. This is why you may be accused of looking angry when you are simply deep in thought. Conversely, when you encounter easy concepts, familiar images, and comfortable conditions, your face tends to take on appropriate expressions, giving you the appearance of happiness. The more demand placed on your brain, the more unhappy you appear.

This is no fun

Think back on a difficult moment in your life. Maybe it was a family tragedy, a natural disaster, or just a period of struggling with your direction in life. During these type of events, your brain struggles to perform well at some of life’s most basic tasks. Things which should be easy suddenly become hard. Just choosing a restaurant feels overwhelming. On the other hand, your brain engages in a unique kind of deep contemplation which can be very useful for helping you work through complex and challenging life problems. These moments provoke questions such as “What is the purpose of my existence?” “Am I at the right job?” “Is my relationship really healthy?” or “Is there really a God?”. These are challenging questions, and confronting them tends to decrease our sense of happiness, and our cognitive ease. Sometimes we face life situations that require a great deal of thought, placing unusual strain on our mental processor. Our thinking slows down. It isn’t easy, it doesn’t make us happy immediately, but it is immensely important, and can have a profound effect on our future happiness.

Embracing displeasure

Don’t discount the usefulness of a bad mood. Happiness has a wealth of proven benefits, but it isn’t a perpetual state. You will be forced to think hard and endure undesirable circumstances. You will, inevitably, be in a bad mood. It’s best to be aware of what you will excel at and what you will struggle with, depending on your mood. It isn’t advantageous to entirely avoid difficult situations or refuse to invest hard, maybe even painful, thought into a matter. Embrace displeasure as meaningful and pivotal. Recognize your state of mind and use it to your advantage.

What not to do

What I’m not suggesting is that moments of irrational emotion, such as anger or despair, are good times to make important choices. Extreme mood swings are not conducive to intelligent decisions. If you’re suicidal, get help. What I am saying is general unhappiness can be useful and a sign that we are tackling a difficult mental task. Our brain is capable of dealing with hard problems, but the effort required often results in a frown and puts us in a bad mood.

The moment when you feel most challenged–when your head aches from the demands placed on your brain and your face betrays your struggle–might be the moment you make the best and most meaningful decision of your life.

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