Like all creatures, the ultimate ambition of a Bad Mood is to live forever. Once it finds its way into a host, it wants to bed down and arrange its surroundings for a long stay. The Mood does this by discouraging initiative of any kind. It applauds couch-sitting and movie-watching and between-meal eating, because this keeps it alive as long as possible.
Skilled Bad Moods also encourage the host to interact badly with others. If it can get the host to scowl and criticize others, those others will react with faces and criticisms of their own, justifying the BM’s existence to its host, thereby giving it a better chance of long-term survival, and giving it a chance to reproduce.
As it gains experience with a particular host, a successful Bad Mood gradually masters the controls. It can keep its administration going for days, or even weeks, once it’s learned which buttons to push. Some especially talented Bad Moods are able to stay in office for the entire lifetime of their host.
The primary strategy of such Moods is to convince the host that it shouldn’t change anything about its environment or its behavior. The Bad Mood feels threatened by changes in physical surroundings, new habits, curiosity, and any effort by the host to move life forward in any way.
Unaware of these covert motives, the host often responds to the Bad Mood by doing the very things that keep it alive.
Know a bad mood when you see it
I’m an advocate of acknowledging bad moods when they do happen, and letting them hang out for a bit instead of trying to force them away. Just being aware that you’re sporting a bad mood goes a long way to thwarting its survival strategies.
A bad mood does its most insidious work when it’s unseen, having convinced you that your mood isn’t distorting anything — the outside world really is boring, or evil, or trite, and you really are flawed and destined for perpetual disappointment, and that you are currently seeing this all with particular clarity. This is a masterful bad mood at work.
In a sense, you’re helpless as long as you don’t know you’re having a “mood.” But once you’ve recognized that a bad mood is indeed in the building, there are things you can do.
I’ve read over a hundred books from the category we can call “self-help.” Most of them are heavy on inspiration and encouragement, and a little light on workable instructions. But if a book leaves me with even one tool I can use (and remember to use) for the rest of my life, then it makes it a more-than-worthwhile read. One of the best ones is from Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project.
It’s so straightforward that it sounds almost insulting at first, and whenever I present the idea in real life I get eyes rolled at me. People in the throes of crappy feelings don’t like to be told that they may have power over those feelings. I understand that, because often that person is me. So I’m hoping to catch you in a decent-enough mood that you will be receptive to the idea.
It’s very simple:
When you notice you don’t feel like you want to feel, act the way you want to feel.
I mentioned this as one of my 16 things I know are true but haven’t quite learned yet. It works almost every time I try it, I just haven’t learned to try it often enough. It takes a bit of resolve, but nothing beyond what any improvement-inclined person could summon in any non-hysterical bad mood.
“If I feel shy, I act friendly. If I feel irritated, I act lovingly.”
It sounds too simple to work, but it does. The brilliant William James explains why: “Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.” [Emphasis mine -D.]
Acting how you want to feel doesn’t automatically create the feeling you’re looking for, but that’s not the point. Bad feelings and actions reinforce each other. So crummy feelings beget crummy actions, which create more crummy feelings and so on. You have more control over your body than your mind, so by doing the unthinkable and acting outgoing when you feel insular, it’s the outgoing feelings that get reinforced and not the insular ones.
Bad moods are often just security blankets
There are also external feedback loops that get interrupted. Say you’re in a funk where you feel small and shy, and you have an evening class in two hours. Part of you wants to skip it, and you know that that will only make you feel worse. You want to feel outgoing, so you decide you’ll go to the class acting like you are feeling that way: standing up straight, making eye contact and starting conversations with people. The reactions you’ll get will reinforce your outgoingness, and actually make it hard to continue to feel shy and evasive.
People mirror the vibes they’re getting from other people. Visible anxiousness makes other people anxious, visible discomfort makes people uncomfortable, visible optimism makes people feel optimistic, and friendliness makes people friendly. This is a very powerful principle of human interaction, and it works very predictably.
Usually, once I’ve begun to act how I want to feel, it makes my funk seem silly, because it’s not doing anything for me anymore. It makes the bad mood feel irrelevant and even a little embarrassing. It’s like noticing you’re still holding an umbrella even though it’s not raining any more.
Whenever I do this I’m struck by the fact that part of me was quite attached to staying grumpy (or shy or judgmental or pessimistic.) It feels as if you were maintaining the mood almost voluntarily, to protect you from something. Acting like someone who feels differently reveals (usually in a minute or two) that the crappy mood was just a security blanket, and losing it doesn’t expose you to anything dangerous.
How to make it work
One requirement is that you’re able to articulate how you feel. “Bad” isn’t specific enough, you need a more precise adjective: irritated, shy, selfish, lonely, unlucky, ungrateful. Then you need to decide how you want to feel, and give it an adjective too: loving, lucky, grateful. Then decide you’re going to go into the next part of your day acting like a loving, lucky or grateful person. Don’t overthink the question of how to act that way. You’ve been loving, lucky and grateful before.
It’s important to understand that deciding to act the way you want to feel is not the same as deciding to feel the way you want to feel. You can’t just will yourself to feel a particular way. But you can move your body and your mouth in ways consistent with how you might if you were feeling the way you want to feel. The change in feelings comes as a side-effect of your conduct.
You are not repressing feelings here. Repressing feelings is trying to will them into something else. You’re applying your will to your behavior, because you have way more control over your behavior than your feelings, and the two reinforce each other.
In my experience this works reliably for mild-to-medium bouts of unwanted feelings. If you’re completely distraught, then you probably need to ride that out at least until you get to a less intense part of your bad trip.
It also doesn’t work if there isn’t a particular way you do want to feel. So it’s quite useful for doing things you want done but you don’t currently feel like doing (think attending social events, exercising, getting work done) but it’s not so useful for putting an end to dedicated moping or calculated passive-aggressive behavior.
Most imporantly, it doesn’t work if you don’t actually do it. It’s not a huge effort but it is an effort, and it’s easy to forget that you decided to act a particular way.
I’m aware that this sounds far-fetched and I don’t expect anyone to believe that it works just by reading this blog post. But I know some of you will be convinced that it’s worth trying. As usual, the doing is more important than the believing here.
In other news:
I’ve been excited to announce this for a while. This coming August, I’ll be presenting at a week-long chautauqua in the mountains of Ecuador.
A chautauqua is a small gathering of people for the purpose of exchanging ideas, which help each other grow as individuals. In this case, the theme is creating happiness and freedom in your life. The group will be about fifteen people plus three presenters. Aside from me, there will be:
Cheryl Reed — Founder of Above the Clouds Retreats and the organizer of this chautauqua.
Aside from the presentations, there will one-on-one sessions with the presenters, plus excursions to the city of Quito, Cheryl’s coffee farm, pre-Incan ruins, and a lot more. I am told there is also a zip-line involved.
The event was a big hit last year, and this time there are two chautauquas. The first one is August 9-16, featuring Mr Money Mustache, Jesse Mecham, and Jim Collins. I’ll be at the second one, August 23-30, with J.D and Cheryl.
If this is something you might be interested in, you can read a lot more about it here.
Also, this time Cheryl is also organizing an optional trip to visit the nearby Galapagos Islands, for attendees who want to extend their stay in South America. The dates are tentative but I imagine it will be the week between the two chautauquas.
Here are a few accounts (and photos) of what the retreat was like last year: