No Such Thing as a “Bad” Mood

Here’s a puzzle for you: why do we get into bad moods? I don’t mean “why” in the immediate sense, as in the frustrating service call I made to my internet provider or the insensitive comment your significant other just made. I mean “why” in the big picture sense, as in “if we have such highly evolved brains, shouldn’t we be optimists who can let life’s little annoyances slide”?

Perhaps not. According to the neurodiversity movement, there is some advantage to every cognitive style from autism to ADHD to, yes, moodiness. It’s not just theoretical; an interesting array of scientific findings back up the silver lining to your gray cloud of a day.

  • Sad moods keep your memories accurate. People who are asked to describe a sad life event are less likely to fall for misleading questions about the events of a simulated car crash, potentially making them better witnesses to history (or whatever events put them in a bad mood to begin with).
  • Sad moods let you form more accurate impressions of new people. People who think of a happy memory tend to be biased by the first information they hear about a new person, such as evidence that they are an extrovert, and tend to ignore later contradictory information that this person is actually an introvert. Those who think back to a sad event seem to weigh all information equally.
  • Bad moods help you overcome stereotypical thinking. People who receive arbitrarily positive feedback about their life goals, putting them in a good mood, have itchier trigger fingers for suspects wearing a turban than suspects with no ethnic identifiers.

It’s worth noting that these three studies, and many others showing advantages of negative moods, are linked to one researcher, Joseph Forgas, but the variety of findings is fairly compelling. There seems to be something to the way we think in a bad mood that might actually be good for us, in the right situation.

The downside to the persistence of sadness and anger is, of course, depression. I consider it a psychological parallel to sickle-cell anemia, a disease caused by having two copies of a particular genetic mutation. This particular mutation persists because carrying only one copy provides protection against malaria. From the evolutionary perspective, the benefits experienced by the carriers are worth the costs suffered by those who lose the genetic lottery.

I doubt this new awareness of mine will do me any good the next time I am feeling sad or angry; in fact, I suspect a rather cynical inner monologue about the uselessness of accurate memories and overcoming stereotypes in my current situation, the next time I’m in a bad mood. But the philosophy behind mindfulness says we should recognize our thoughts without judgment, and I have hopes that in the long run – perhaps a very long run – knowledge of the potential advantages of feeling down or vexed will let me see it as just another state of mind.

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