Finding ways to make our bad moods work good in our lives involves paying attention to how they shape our experiences.

We have all experienced how negative moods can dys-organize our brains and drive us to places that are counterproductive to an imminent goal. In fact, all it takes is a few milliseconds for negativity to vault anyone (and it doesn’t matter how intelligent we may be) into bizarre—sometimes even self-sabotaging behaviors. What’s more, these moods can draw out of us all kinds of other negative issues we depot in our heads and in no time line them up against us like a full court press.

I’ve seen such epics play out in the classroom many times. A student becomes heated over a thesis he or she is trying to prove and a potentially fine point goes up in flames. On the flipside, it is of no surprise to me how productive certain students can be even when living with depression, anger, fear and so on. A recent student of mine, suffering from depression, was nonetheless able to compose a terrific portfolio of original short fiction. Athletically, one of the most beautiful kata performances (martial arts movements that look like a dance) I have ever seen—ever—was given by a young woman living with leukemia.  So, what is it that allows some people to shine under the influence of bad feelings and others to be “done in” by them? 

A lot of it has to do with how sensitive we are to how “our own” negative moods affect us.  For example, I may respond to anger differently than you.  My job is to understand my own response. 

A master karate teacher once corrected me very early on in my martial arts training when he saw me angrily roundhousing the heavy bag.  “You’re doing yourself no good,” he shouted from across the room.  “You will either hurt yourself or train yourself to throw weak, uselesskicks.” I didn’t get it, but as per his suggestion, I calmed down and put my attention on trying to execute the technique correctly and smoothly—without any attitude.

With practice, I learned to become more sensitive to what was happening in my body when I felt certain emotions. I discovered that my body would tighten up—in some cases paralyze—if I attempted martial maneuvers in anger.  Fear would have me blocking irrelevant, sometimes feigned, strikes and leave me unable to catch the relevant ones. More experienced players would, in fact, work to get you upset as a ploy, watch your reactions, and then take advantage of them later.  The rope-a-dope strategy that Mohammed Ali used against George Foreman in the historic Rumble in the Jungle championship boxing upset in Zaire serves up a good example. Not only did Ali tire out Foreman’s body, but he paralyzed Foreman’s mind as well so that Foreman could no longer pay attention to the big picture, which included identifying relevant targets and prioritizing his energy so that he could go the entire match. The result: a totally unexpected 8th round knockout and win for Ali. 

The next step, after becoming sensitive to how certain moods affect us, is learning how to make them beneficial. 

A writer friend once told me that she did her best writing when she was “feeling blue.”  She told me that she, in truth, doesn’t write well at all when she is in a good mood. So success depends, in part, on matching specific moods and with certain goals. On a personal note, I can’t write to save my life if I have had an argument with someone. I can, however, do my best critical work when angry.

So let’s say I am on a writing project and unfortunately wind up having it out with someone in the meantime. I’ve learned that’s the time for me to shift. Sure I may want to write, but I know that I can advance the same goal instead by spending my time that day editing work I have already written or locating the best research for the next segment of my writing project. I have also discovered that matching moods to tasks helps me stay on track with my goals, which eventually can dissolve the “bad feelings,” and in turn make me feel good about accomplishing something. 

Ultimately with a little self-awareness, you can use bad moods to help start lining things up in a better direction. And when you feel you’re flying “high” again, the feeling is real. In fact, the effect can be synergistic—the closer you feel to your goals, the more your brain rewards you with a cascade of self-produced pleasure drugs, the better you feel, the more “good” you can get done, and so on.

Using your emotions this way involves shifting your attention from feeling an emotion and getting swept away by it to identifying the emotion and reviewing what your options are and either holding on or letting go.

What’s needed to make this approach effective is reflection, an understanding of the liabilities AND assets of your own negative moods, and then a sense of mindfulness as you dip in and out of them.  The objective is to match the right moods with the right tasks.  With practice, you can turn many bad moods into a plus.   

Note:  My book Can I Have Your Attention? presents more of the picture regarding connections among attention, focus/execute skills, blood chemistry, memory, and emotions.  For a fuller view concerning the role of emotions take a look at Dr. John Mayer’s work on Emotional Intelligence as well as Dr. Daniel Goleman’s book titled Emotional Intelligence.

(Image by Kevin Walsh)

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