Sunday Scaries

How to take advantage of a bad mood

Science can explain the unique abilities linked to feeling sour.

Originally Published: 
Guy in a bad mood
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Research — and life experience — suggest that when we are in a bad mood, we tend to indulge ourselves with a treat. It feels justified on the face of it. Why not do something nice for yourself — skip the life admin to relax with a coffee, for example — to combat a lame day?

The reverse is also true: We’re more likely to deal with our least-favorite tasks when we’re in a good mood. Necessary but burdensome activities like taxes seem more palatable when you’re already feeling sunny.

But other studies suggest we might be using our moods all wrong. Instead of fighting off a bad mood with a fun distraction, we might take advantage of the unique abilities a bad mood bestows upon us. And while your taxes might not sound like the most appealing thing to do when you’re feeling sour, it might be the best moment.

This point is illustrated by findings recently published in the journal Frontiers in Communication. In this experiment, the study team focused on how people’s brains react to language when they are in a good mood compared to a bad mood. Ultimately, the researchers found a link between being in a bad mood and being more careful and analytical. This suggests that when we’re in a bad mood, we may want to tackle tasks that are more detail-oriented, like proofreading and writing emails (or indeed, taxes), explains first author Vicky Tzuyin Lai, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona.

Critically, a bad mood in this context isn’t the same as intense, enduring emotions like those that might accompany depression. Rather, we’re talking about the all-too-familiar, thankfully temporary state of being — those moments of irritability, sadness, and frustration. While these feelings are unwanted, they are also incredibly banal — and research suggests that people who accept these moments as a part of life, and not a failing, fare better on measures of mental and physical well-being.

Here are some situations where a bad mood could help you out:

When you need to be precise

You might be a better proof reader when you’re in a foul mood.

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Lai and colleagues manipulated the study participant’s moods by showing them clips from either Sophie’s Choice or Friends — you can gather which clip was intended to inspire which mood. Interestingly, only the sad clip changed the participant’s mood from their baseline, causing them to feel more negative.

The participants then listened to a series of audio stories, some of which included sentences that did not fit the context of the story or sentences that did fit the context of the story, but only if the listener was really paying attention to make sense of it. The researchers measured the participant’s brain activity and then surveyed them on their understanding of the clips.

Participants in bad moods were more likely to respond to any inconsistencies in the audio clip with further thinking and analysis — in other words, they paid more attention.

“We think that what our negatively-minded readers were doing when information sources collided was that they continued to analyze and reanalyze these semantic conflicts in an attempt to come up with a coherent interpretation,” Lai says. “These signals were reflected in the scalp electrodes on top of the frontal lobe, a brain region associated with disambiguation.”

In turn, this is why Lai and colleagues think detail-oriented language tasks (like proofreading) might be a good fit for people who are in bad moods. They are more likely than their good-mood peers to care about the details.

When you need to be perceptive

Need to figure out the truth? A bad mood can help.

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Meanwhile, a 2008 study found that bad moods increased people’s skepticism and their ability to detect deception. Comparatively, the study participants in a good mood turned out to be more trusting and gullible.

In turn, the scientists behind this research venture that bad moods can help you evaluate myths and rumors.

These results are in line with other studies that suggest bad moods can help people focus due to an influence on executive functioning. Overall, executive functioning refers to the set of high-level cognitive skills we use to control and coordinate our abilities and behaviors.

When you need to remember

Giving a presentation? You might as well work on what you want to memorize if you’re in a bad mood.

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You might be noticing a pattern: Negative moods prompt a more attentive thinking style. This mood seems especially likely to help us out with inductive reasoning — when we draw conclusions by using specific pieces of information.

In turn, this might explain why bad moods can lead to improved memory. Studies show that people in a bad mood are more likely to remember significant information and less likely to consider misleading details than their happy peers. People in a bad mood are also less likely to rely on stereotypes when forming an opinion.

When you need to communicate

While it might seem counterintuitive, being in a bad mood helps some be better communicators.

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All of these elements — preciseness, perceptiveness, and a good memory — make for a good communicator. A 2007 study found that people in a bad mood, compared to those in a good mood, came up with more effective persuasive arguments.

They were also better at understanding ambiguous sentences and communicating their thoughts. This likely links back to the focused thinking associated with bad moods — which leads to a better understanding of what resonates with people

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