In recent weeks, I’ve written a lot about controlling emotions (see links below). But what about moods? How can you control the affective baseline underneath your emotions? The truth is, you can’t really regulate your mood, but let’s start at the beginning.
What’s the difference between mood and emotion?
Emotions are discrete affective states; relatively short (a few seconds to an hour max), high in intensity, and clearly linked to a triggering event.
Moods are diffuse affective states; relatively long (hours, days, or even weeks), medium in intensity, and not clearly linked to a triggering event.
While emotions prepare the body for action, moods prepare the body for emotion. For example, in an irritable mood, you’re more likely to get angry; in a depressed mood, you’re more likely to get sad; in an apprehensive mood, you’re more likely to be afraid; in a cheerful mood, you’re more likely to experience joy.
Conversely, emotions may create moods, but only if they’re intense enough and experienced multiple times in a short period. As Paul Ekman once said to the Dalai Lama,
If you were to make me very, very happy again and again and again, I am going to be in a euphoric mood for hours. If in a short period of time you make me very frightened again and again and again, I’m going to be in a very worried, apprehensive mood. But this is just my idea; I do not know whether it is true. (Emotional Awareness, p.11)
What Factors Determine Your Mood?
Sleep and stress. Sleeping too little and working too much worsen your mood. Naturally, the more meaning you find in your work, the more you can work without negative consequences; and the more stably you match your sleep to your circadian rhythm, the better for your mood.
Movement and nutrition. You can improve your mood with physical exercise (especially lifting weights, which also builds a mood-positive posture) and eating micronutrient-rich foods (fish, eggs, fruits, vegetables, etc.). Of course, overtraining and undereating have the opposite effect.
Environment. Your physical environment (weather, climate, indoors vs. outdoors, urban vs. rural, etc.) and your social environment (family, friends, colleagues, neighborhood, country, etc.) affect your mood in numerous ways. For example, your mood will suffer if you don’t get enough fresh air and sunlight, if you’ve moved to a climate that doesn’t fit your genetic heritage, if you’re getting divorced, or if you live an anti-tribal life.
Attitude. When you look at the world, do you see challenge or injustice? Do you feel inspired or outraged? Your mindset influences your mood, although, in reality, it tends to work the other way around. In any case, a negative, pessimistic, cynical attitude and a sanguine, euphoric mood don’t go well together.
Brain function. Your mood depends on your neurohormonal state, which depends on your genetic makeup, on psychoactive drugs you may have taken, and on all the factors above. If your mood lasts for more than two weeks, you may have a mood disorder (mania, depression, etc.), which could be due to chemical imbalances, circadian dysfunction, or maladaptive neuroplasticity (we don’t really know yet).
Can You Control Your Mood?
While you can learn to regulate your emotions at will, you can’t do the same with moods because there’s no specific situation to reappraise or distract yourself from and no acute bodily expression to stifle. Willpower is impulse control, and a mood is not an impulse to control.
You could try to self-generate positive emotions over and over until they eventually affect your mood, but if your brain and the people around don’t go along with it, your efforts will be futile.
You could also pursue pleasure to brighten your mood. Move (work out, walk outside, jump around), consume (food, drugs, entertainment), create (art, music, handwork), and connect (tell people you love them, compliment strangers, have sex). But that’s not regulating your mood from within and usually just a temporary fix, if not even a trap.
The only real and lasting solution is to change your mood strategically over time: learn to meditate, develop a more positive mindset, improve your lifestyle, optimize your environment, and, if you suspect you have a chronic mood disorder, collaborate with a mental health professional.
Lastly, why would you want to be in control of your mood anyway? Isn’t that like chasing happiness? Personally, I sometimes prefer being in a bad mood. I see it as a test of my will: to take action regardless of how I feel. If I’m not in the right mood to do something, getting that thing done will be even more glorious!