Michael Grothaus: There is a quote I love that says, “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” I’ve found that to be true: Anything of significance I’ve accomplished in my life has, at least in part, been due to the attitude I’ve held, even when there were negative factors working against me that were outside my control.
Yet while our attitude is a state of mind we can control, there is an as equally powerful, and seemingly uncontrollable, state that can have far more sway on our ability to respond to and work through situations—our mood. Unlike attitude, which is a choice, mood is a far more complex thing.
“Mood comprises two factors that are typically referred to as positive and negative affect,” says Sophie von Stumm, senior lecturer in psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. “Positive affect refers to feeling alert and enthusiastic, and negative affect describes experiencing distress, anxiety, and even depressed moods.”
“From a biological perspective, we know the brain structures and neurotransmitters that are involved in mood, but very little is known about the genetic origin of fluctuations in mood,” says Von Stumm. To add to the complexity of how our mood originates, our mood states also seem to be closely associated with our individual personality traits.
“Our mood fluctuates to a greater extent than our personality does, but how much and in what way our mood fluctuates is a function of our personality,” says Von Stumm. “For example, people who score high on neuroticism, a personality trait that refers to the tendency to experience anxiety and depression, tend to experience more often negative affect states. That is, they are emotionally less stable (more fluctuations).”
Due to its complex nature and biological and situational origins, moods that dip into the negative-affect states can have a powerful sway over us-–in spite of any attempts to fight against it by keeping a good attitude.
“A large body of empirical evidence has shown that negative affect-–depressed and anxious mood–-is associated with reduced cognitive performance and lower cognitive flexibility,” says Von Stumm. In other words, if you’re feeling moody at work, no matter how determined you are to get the job done, your productivity and creativity will suffer.
The question is, by how much? And are their certain days or times where workers are more likely to be in a negative mood? That is something researchers don’t know yet, but finding out the answer has the potential to save employers billions by implementing workplace policies and programs that enable them and their employees to best cope with and respond to negative moods, which could result in not only a happier workforce, but a more productive one as well.
Unfortunately, many of the limited findings about mood and productivity come from studies involving clinically depressed patients. Few deal with the relationship between cognitive performance and mood changes within the normal, non-clinical range, says Von Stumm. And even those studies that did were hampered by the very assessment of the subject’s mood. After all, bringing someone into a lab setting to ask them how they feel is sure to put them in a worse mood, because their valuable time is being taken away from the work they need to do.
That’s why she and her team at The Hungry Mind Lab teamed up with the specialized psychological testing developers PSYT to create moo-Q, an iPhone app that repeatedly assesses people’s mood and brainpower on the go. “I wanted to study the relationship between mood and brainpower, and I realized quickly that I had to first solve the problem of assessing mood without altering it,” says Von Stumm.
Users of the app are asked to take a short survey multiple times a day asking about their current mood. Then the survey is followed up by a series of short memory-based numeric quizzes. The better the user does, the more productive they are. Charts are then displayed that show the user their productivity levels over time, and based upon what kind of mood they were in.
In using moo-Q for a week, I could easily see how much my productivity, particularly in the areas of working memory and processing speed, were hindered when I was in a bad mood. This helped me identify particular times where perhaps it wasn’t most optimal for me to be working on something that needs my full attention.
In turn, Von Stumm’s team will use my anonymized data, along with moo-Q’s 17,000-plus other users to answer the question, “Are our brains really better on some days than on others?” And that answer could help boost productivity in every office in the country. For example, if moo-Q’s data shows that most employees are in a bad mood at 3pm on a Monday, then employers would know not to schedule brainstorming sessions for that time.
Von Stumm’s team won’t be crunching the numbers until later this year, so you still have time to contribute your mood data through the free moo-Q app. She also acknowledges that there is still stigma and fear around mood disorders, which means some could be concerned about what the app will reveal about their mental state. But Von Stumm says fluctuating moods aren’t generally cause for concern.
“Mood changes are absolutely normal and healthy,” says Von Stumm. “The two parameters that can indicate abnormal changes in mood are the frequency and extent of mood changes, for example, when people go from being on top of the world one minute, to down in the dumps the next. Depression is in fact known as ‘mood disorder,’ because it is characterized by constant low mood, that is, an extreme change towards negative affect.”
Von Stumm also stresses that people don’t need to wait for her team’s data to start taking charge of their own moods. Here are three simple steps she says anyone can take to make the most of the mood they are in:
If you are in a bad mood, smile. “Research has shown that if people smile, even if it’s forcefully and not supported by an emotional experience at first, their mood will improve,” says Von Stumm. “Also, smiling will make you more likable, and smiling will make your voice sound more appealing.”
If you are in a good mood, work. “Although the findings on the relationship between mood and cognitive performance are to date fragmentary and somewhat inconsistent, preliminary empirical evidence suggests that our brains work faster at times when we experience more positive affect. So next time you are in high spirits, don’t head to the park or pub with your friends, but tackle that work project or textbook that usually seems too hard to take on.”
If you go from high to low in minutes, stop and take a break. “Frequent and extreme mood swings are early signs for psychological imbalance that often results from poor sleep due to stress,” notes Von Stumm. “It’s easier said than done, but when you notice your mood becoming unstable, take a step back, try to identify the source of stress, and eliminate it. Sometimes it’s enough to become aware that a situation is stressful for us to find our balance again.”
Article and image via Fast Company