There’s a trick to improving your mood—but you probably don’t want to do it

Mood follows action.
Mood follows action.
Image: AP Photo/Sang Tan
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Conventional wisdom holds that mood and motivation supercede action: The better we feel and the more motivated we are, the more likely we are to act.

While this is certainly true in a lot of situations, there are some situations in which it’s not. Sometimes when we are feeling down and unmotivated, the best thing we can do to change our mental state is to change our physical state. Mood follows action.

In acute situations, this could be as simple as forcing yourself to exercise, run errands, or get dinner with a friend when you’re feeling particularly low. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps individuals through anxiety and depression, places an immense focus on the “behavior” part of the equation. That’s because it’s hard, if not impossible, to control our thoughts and the subsequent feelings they generate, but we can control our behaviors.

If your thoughts and feelings are telling you “you suck, be low, stay in bed,” good luck trying to convince yourself otherwise. You can’t talk or think your way out of that jam. But if you force yourself (again, I use force because in these situations, you really have to force yourself) to take any kind of action — even just doing the dishes — you give yourself the best chance at changing your thoughts and feelings. They don’t always change, but at least you give yourself a chance.

The same pattern holds true in more chronic situations. To achieve success in any long-term pursuit, perhaps the most important attribute is simply showing up. This is especially important early on. When taking on something new, mood and motivation are often quite high at the outset. But then, when the first rough-patch hits (there is no escaping rough patches), mood and motivation dwindle. This is when you sleep in on cold mornings instead of run; don’t give your all at the end of a big project; or, following the honeymoon period, decide to ignore your partner when they tell you about their day. And yet if you force yourself to show up — to do the run, to focus on the project, to be present for your partner — and if you do this consistently, a strange thing starts to happen; your mood, motivation, and interest lift. Sure, a firm daily practice takes some motivation to get going, but over time, the equation is reversed; dedicating yourself to a firm daily practice is what builds motivation.

In summary, in both acute and chronic situations, focus less on motivation and more on action. If your mood and motivation are low, are telling you not to act, that’s all the more reason to act. Yes, feeling good can lead to action, but action can also lead to feeling good.