Get the lowdown on the science behind moods.
Scientists define a mood as a prolonged period of time in which you tend to feel certain feelings and have thoughts that mirror those feelings (Watson & Clark, 1997). For example, when you are in a negative mood, you might feel worried or upset, and thoughts will generally follow this pattern, too.
Moods have two chief characteristics: whether they are positive or negative, and how intense they are (Watson & Clark, 1997). When you say you’re in a relaxed mood, for example, you are probably feeling positive, but in a mild way. By contrast, when you are in an angry mood, things probably feel intensely unpleasant.
We are usually aware to some degree of the nature of our mood, even if we can’t change or control it (Watson & Clark, 1997). You probably can often sense when you’re in a good mood or a bad mood. One of the things that distinguishes moods from emotions is that moods are longer-lasting. Once you’re in a particular mood, it will likely continue for some time, even though it may not seem related to anything in your current environment (Russell, 2003).
Scientists think that moods are created by the experiences we have, especially experiences happening close together in time (Nettle & Bateson, 2012). For example, a morning of inconveniences – a traffic accident snarling traffic, a long wait at the doctor’s office, and then a bumped-up deadline at work – could put you in a state of anxiety. If you’ve ever had a morning like this, your response was actually adaptive: you reacted to an environment full of unexpected threats by putting your system on high alert so that you would be better able to respond to the next threat.
Psychologists think moods are important to study, not just because they’re a very important part of the lived human experience, but also because they impact how we perceive and respond to the world (Nettle & Bateson, 2012). You could call this emotional thinking – a phenomenon where our feelings shape the very possibilities of our thoughts.
As noted above, moods can be characterized by two dimensions: how pleasant or unpleasant they are, and how intense they are. Another way to think of this is how focused on reward versus threat we are (Nettle & Bateson, 2012). From this understanding, we can identify four examples of moods:
Mildly unpleasant mood: This includes states of boredom or irritation. You can think of boredom as the unpleasant absence of engaging activities, and irritation as a mood where your environment is repeatedly, but mildly, unpleasant to you.
Strongly unpleasant mood: This includes states of anxiety and depression. In this context, your feelings more powerfully influence your thoughts, and it can be very difficult to feel positively about your experience of the world.
Mildly pleasant mood: A sense of relaxation is probably the best example here. People who are relaxed are not highly motivated to do anything, but they are feeling good.
Strongly pleasant mood: Happiness, contentment, and joy are examples of strongly pleasant moods. Not only are you feeling very good, but you’re probably more motivated to do things to maintain or amplify those feelings.
It can be helpful for your own ability to skillfully respond to your moods to think about what each mood type is encouraging you to do. Our moods, like our emotions, attune us to our environments in specific ways. A positive or pleasant mood makes us more likely to pay attention to the rewarding things in our environment, while a negative or unpleasant mood makes it easier to notice things that are threatening or punishing (Carver, 2001).
Research thus far suggests that mood trackers may be helpful for us to better understand how our moods change (Malhi et al., 2017). However, it will take more research before we know whether it is the mindfulness of one’s moods from hour to hour, or the insights gained from the process, that are most helpful.
As with so many aspects of being a human, moods are something we handle best through acceptance. Our emotional reactions to the events of our lives are natural, and it’s just as natural that, over time, those reactions form the basis for a mood. While a mood may last for hours or even days, it is never permanent. Being aware of how our moods influence our thinking and decision-making can help us remain skillful and effective regardless of how we’re feeling.
Carver, C. S. (2001). Affect and the functional bases of behavior: On the dimensional structure of affective experience. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5(4), 345-356.
Malhi, G. S., Hamilton, A., Morris, G., Mannie, Z., Das, P., & Outhred, T. (2017). The promise of digital mood tracking technologies: are we heading on the right track?. Evidence-based mental health, 20(4), 102-107.
Nettle, D., Bateson, M. (2012). The Evolutionary Origins of Mood and Its Disorders, Current Biology, 22 (17), 712-721.
Russell, J. A. (2003). Core affect and the psychological construction of emotion. Psychological Review, 110(1), 145.
Watson, D., & Clark, L. A. (1997). Measurement and mismeasurement of mood: Recurrent and emergent issues. Journal of Personality Assessment, 68, 267-296.