Really leaning into a bad mood may actually make you better at accomplishing tasks, but only if you’re one of those deep-feeling emotional types, according to a study published in Personality & Individual Differences this month.
The paper suggests that your brain might actually benefit from a healthy bad mood. [Tara McAuley] (https://uwaterloo.ca/psychology/people-profiles/tara-mcauley), P.h.D, an associate professor in the University of Waterloo’s psychology department and the lead author of the study, explains that mood is actually a source of information for your brain. Psychologists have referred to this idea as the “mood-as-information theory.” If you require scientific evidence to confirm how emotional you are, there’s chart for that — and these researchers used it to help illuminate the potential benefits of being grumpy:
“Negative moods are thought to signal threat — in other words, cueing us to potential danger and making us more mindful of our surroundings,” McAuley tells Inverse via email. “It has been suggested that some of our thinking skills may actually benefit from being in a bad mood because a bad mood encourages us to adopt a more analytic mindset and pay closer attention to detail.”
McAuley looked to add a level of nuance to this theory by looking at how the strength of the bad mood and personality combine to affect how we pay attention to detail.
She did this by administering surveys to 95 undergrads intended to identify how strongly certain people feel bad moods, a metric called “reactivity.” If a student related strongly to statements like “when something happens that upsets me, it’s all I can think about for a long time,” they would be classified as a “high reactive individual.” That means that they tended to internalize a bad mood more than a “low reactive,” more chilled out individual.
Analysis found that “low reactivity individuals” actually performed worse on tests intended to measure working memory — like remembering strings of letters and numbers — when they were experiencing strong bad moods. But people who tended to experience strong emotions — or high reactivity individuals — tended to perform better on these tasks. McAuley’s study couldn’t exactly pin down why this happens, but she has a hypothesis:
“There is some other research showing that highly reactive people experience stronger and more frequent bad moods than less reactive people,” she tells Inverse. “One possibility is that bad moods are less distracting to people who are high (rather than low) in emotional reactivity and so interfere less with thinking.”
In her paper, McAuley references established psychological theory called “cognitive load theory” to help bolster this potential explanation. Cognitive load theory suggests that there’s a point at which you can just overwhelm your brain to the point where you’re no longer able to remember anything. It’s possible, then, that strong negative emotions create a higher cognitive load in people who aren’t used to dramatic emotional experiences. By contrast, people with a bent toward the dramatic are used to the emotional whirlwind, so it doesn’t create a very “heavy” cognitive load.
This study is really only a jumping off point, as McAuley points out in the paper. And to really establish causality they’ll have to look for some kind of mechanism, which will require some brain-scanning. Until then she notes that her work isn’t an excuse to fly off the handle. But if you’re prone to that kind of thing anyway, you might as well use it to get stuff done.