Bad moods are no fun; but we all get them from time to time. I sometimes feel down reading the news or forgetting to exercise; others may become moody after a setback at work or a fight with their partner.
Now, a new study published in Psychophysiology suggests that bad moods seem to impact the neural underpinnings of empathy, as well, with important implications for our relationships.
Past research has shown that our neural wiring allows us to experience what another person is feeling—something called emotional resonance, an important element of empathy. This is why we tend to get scared watching horror movies and feel happy when a loved one expresses joy.
To look at how moods might affect emotional resonance, researchers in the new study hooked up 23 students from a Chinese university to an EEG to measure brain activity and had them listen to music or to a broadcast that put them in either a good, bad, or neutral mood. Participants were then shown pictures of people going through painful or neutral experiences—such as getting a hand shut in a door versus seeing a hand closing the same door. Afterwards, they reported how much pain they thought the person in the picture felt and how painful it was for them to see these pictures.
Findings revealed that participants in a bad mood showed brain activity linked to lowered emotional resonance with people in pain than participants in a positive or neutral mood. This pattern was mirrored in how they rated their own discomfort at seeing others in pain, suggesting that someone in a bad mood might be less empathic and less motivated to help a person suffering than someone in a good mood.
According to the authors of the study, this concurs with previous studies that found people in a bad mood are less able to mirror other people’s actions and facial expressions. In other words, we are less tuned to others when we’re not feeling good. The study extended past research by showing us the neural underpinnings that may be responsible for this effect.
On the other hand, participants in a bad mood did not consistently make reduced ratings of another’s pain in the painful scenarios. So, while our bad moods may affect automatic, unconscious empathic processes, they seem to have less impact on cognitively controlled processes—such as imagining how another person might feel.
What does this mean for our relationships? Being in a bad mood could impact our orientation toward another’s suffering and our desire to alleviate it. In addition, since bad moods may be contagious, being in a bad mood could put others in a bad mood, which might impact their ability to empathize with us, as well. In just the moment when we could use some support, our ability to connect may be hindered.
How to improve your mood
This doesn’t necessarily mean that we should try to avoid all bad moods—our emotions can provide us with important information about what’s happening around us and give us guidance around what we might need. But, if we suffer frequently from bad moods, it could be useful to have tools available to help lift our spirits.
Here are some tools that have helped me:
1. Start with the basics, like good sleep and moderate exercise. Taking good care of our physical selves is key to experiencing good feelings.
2. Spend time outside. Research has shown that being in nature generates positive feelings, while relieving stress. Many people find that they experience awe in nature—a positive emotion that helps us be more kind and helpful to others. So, when I feel bad, taking a walk outside does double duty.
3. Practice mindfulness meditation. Though perhaps most effective when done regularly over time, research suggests that mindfulness meditation can boost positive feelings even when done in shorter durations. Though I’ve been a meditation skeptic, it’s amazing how much it’s helped me when I’m feeling down.
4. Try a little gratitude. Gratitude is easier to come by when you take the time to focus on the gifts you’ve been given in life—your supportive family, your health, your friends, the beauty of a sunset, food on the table. Keeping a gratitude journal or writing a gratitude letter to someone who has helped you or made your life better in some way can bring a big dose of happy feelings.
5. Reach out to your supportive social networks. I know I sometimes like to go hide in a hole when I’m feeling bad. But it never fails to amaze me how much talking to a friend can really shift my mood. We often underestimate how much we can gain from talking to others—even when we think we’d rather not. Since your emotional empathy might be compromised, you could put in a little extra effort to imagine their point of view (if the situation calls for it) to make a better connection.
6. Give to others and be generous. Practicing kindness toward others—even if they don’t know it, such as when you anonymously pay for someone’s coffee—can be a wonderful way to raise your mood. And research shows that giving to others makes us happier than spending on ourselves.
7. Do something creative. Though happiness seems to help us be more creative, the reverse is true, too: Doing everyday creative acts can help us feel more positive. These can be simple acts, like taking a photo of a flower, trying out a new recipe, or doing a craft. They might also involve a larger commitment, like singing in a choir, which research suggests can increase positive feelings. For me, there’s nothing like singing to improve my mood.
Of course, bad moods aren’t something most of us can control. And we shouldn’t simply try to wipe them away and fake being happy. But, if we keep in mind that we have the power to shift our moods and maintain some emotional balance, we may be doing ourselves—and those around us—a big favor.