How the Body Creates Our Moods
Classic research grounds our moods in the body, not in the head, and points toward simple steps to happiness.
About twenty-five years ago, Robert E. Thayer, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at California State University, Long Beach, and author of The Origin of Everyday Moods, quietly documented what may be one of the most significant observations in the history of psychology, maybe one of the most significant in the history of the world. His observation appears to be a fundamental truth, a clue leading directly to the core of human happiness. Since then, Thayer, his graduate students, and thousands of undergraduates have been testing it and adding more clues so that now he has solid evidence for his claim that we have within us the tools to be happy and satisfied with our lives.
So, you ask, what was this observation? What are these tools? Well . . . (Drum-roll please . . .
On second thought, not yet.
Instead, imagine for a moment that you are that great French philosopher Rene Descartes, and you’re in a doubting mood. As you sit in your favorite armchair in front of a roaring fire, it strikes you that you cannot be certain that this fire is not some clever illusion. Even the heat you feel could be a trick of your mind. For that matter, your armchair could be an illusion. So too could be your own arms. So could God. Getting right down to it, the only thing you absolutely cannot doubt is your own doubting. “Aha!” you exclaim. “I think, therefore I am!” Then you pick yourself up and wander around Paris looking at all the fabulous new machines of the day that, thanks to water power, appear to run by themselves. “Aha!” You say again. “My real self is encased in a wonderful hydraulic machine that allows me to move around.” You then publish this observation and turn the philosophical world on its head—a head that is both separate from and superior to the body.
So what does this have to do with Robert Thayer and the sure steps to happiness?
Well . . . Just wait.
Today, both science and medicine are proving that Descartes had it backwards: the “intelligence” packed into every cell of the body is mind boggling, and the primary business of our brains is motor activity, literally moving ourselves around. Meanwhile, both scientists and theologians are wrestling with evidence that our consciousness, and perhaps even our souls, are properties that emerge from our bodies. In short, we are gloriously biological beings—with minds and spirituality firmly rooted in our physical selves. And yet, sitting in front of a fire, we can still, like Descartes, come to absolute certainty of the mind only by doubting.
We still tend to envision our brains as separate entities (often as computers) that tell our bodies what to do. We tend to assume that our moods are determined by how these computer brains process outside events. Happiness, we still tend to believe, comes primarily from thinking happy thoughts.
Which brings us (finally!) to Robert Thayer’s oh-so-simple and brilliant observation from twenty-five years ago: And—Drumroll, please!—here it is!
A brisk, five- to ten-minute walk will improve your mood better and longer than eating a candy bar. In fact, better than anything.
“Whoa!” You sputter sarcastically “‘Take a walk!’ is the most significant observation in the history of the world?” Yes, it probably is. Here’s why: Using thousands of undergrads over the years, Thayer has been able to track just how powerfully our moods motivate us. Day by day and even moment to moment, we feel and act on impulses to break out of bad moods and improve good ones. He has also shown just how powerfully our moods determine the kind of thoughts we have and whether a given situation presents itself as an insoluble problem or an as opportunity. So anything that reliably improves mood is a lever that can move the world.
Secondly, Thayer has expanded that observation to say that if you are in a bad mood (and perhaps semiconsciously craving a sugar snack) the most reliable way to immediately feel better is to take a brisk walk. Taking a walk may not come to mind as the best choice, but the research says that it is best.
So try it now. Get up and take a brisk walk, and as you do, you may want to first repeat the mantra “I think, therefore I am,” because when your feet are moving, this benchmark statement of philosophy can seem so utterly ridiculous that it will make you smile. The next great mantra to try is “Not my will, but Thine, which becomes one of most gloriously ambiguous statements of all time. Perhaps really listening to the body is listening to an intelligence greater than what’s in our heads.
The New Language of Happiness
Moods up close are quite simply a mess. As Thayer points out, functions as diverse as brain neurotransmitters, heart activity, blood pressure, respiration, blood sugar levels, and immune system activity—as well as thoughts and what’s happening in the world around us—all play a part in how we feel at any given moment. While people often speak with what sounds like authority about how a certain pill boosts mood by, for example, providing an extra dollop of dopamine, that’s just a guess about one piece of an enormous puzzle—and that guess is quite likely to prove to be completely wrong. There are scores of neurotransmitters that we know virtually nothing about. And a little history reveals that the most successful mood enhancing drugs were developed by accident, work only slightly better than placebos, and the theories put forward to explain why they work are often contradictory. In short, the physiology of mood remains too complex for current science. That is why it was so critically important that Thayer’s undergrads systematically monitored their moods, day in and day out, for so many years.
From that data Thayer has been able to construct a simple model that helps us understand the connection between the body and mind—and to find the best levers to improve mood, empower thoughts, and improve the world.
According to Thayer’s model, what we feel as moods—good, bad, and ugly—are both better gauged and more accurately described as a combination of two states of arousal: energy and tension. Think of energetic arousal as an action system: When we feel energy we feel a desire to move, either physically or mentally. Tense arousal, on the other hand, is warning system that is felt as anxiety and/or muscle tension. Fundamental to our moods are simple and basic questions: Do we feel energetic or tired? Do we feel calm or tense? In general, Thayer has found that as energy rises, tension drops. As tension rises, energy rises as well, but only to a point. When tension reaches that point, energy plummets.
The best moods, says Thayer, usually involve high energy and low tension, what he calls Calm Energy, the blessed state of security in which the mind is open and able to concentrate and the body has motor energy to spare. Undergrads do their best studying by far in this Calm Energy state.
A distant second best is a combination of high energy and high tension, or Tense Energy. Think of it as Type A energy, the anxious, distractible, have-to-get-things-done kind of mood that can be so addictive, but that turns out to be not nearly so productive as Calm Energy.
Ranked third in terms of study quality is a combination of low energy and low tension, what Thayer calls Calm Tiredness. As the name suggests, this a good time to be fading toward sleep. In this state it often takes physical movement to keep from falling asleep.
The worst moods—and the state producing the lowest quality studying—stem from a combination of low energy and high tension, what Thayer calls Tense Tiredness. In this state, one feels insufficient energy to face the tasks at hand and yet tension keeps the mind racing. In evolutionary terms, think of tense tiredness as a night spent in which a tiger may be close. Energy is spent, yet survival may depend on staying awake, so tension jams your eyes open.
Tense tiredness, says Thayer, is not the same as depression, but the mood usually underlies depression. In depression, a variety of thoughts accompany tense tiredness, thoughts that seem to be called to mind by the arousal state of the body. To put this again in evolutionary terms, tense tiredness is a nighttime spent with something mysterious moving about in the leaves, something that keeps the mind anxiously sorting through all the possible dangers that the sound might represent. The state of depression, on the other hand, is when dawn never comes. Stuck in a tense tired state, the mind endlessly sifts through worst case scenario until it overflows with sadness, hopelessness, and low self-esteem.
The final state is simple exhaustion. Because the body can no longer maintain sufficient tension to stay awake, the tension suddenly fades, and one experience burst of calm, or even euphoric energy before falling asleep.
Tracking The Ebb and Flow of Energy and Tension
As Thayer’s students have learned, making the simple shift in our descriptive language of mood—to describe them in terms of energy and tension—is probably the most important step in learning to accurately monitor and improve those moods. We can then easily come to recognize the ebb and flow of energy and tension in our bodies, and we can consciously evaluate the behaviors we use to change those moods. We learn that moods are neither mysterious nor unknowable.
Energy changes often reflect a kind of biological clock. Energy is low at awakening, and for most people it increases to a daily high point sometime in the late morning or early afternoon. In the typical cycle, energy next declines to a low point in the mid to late afternoon. It increases again slightly after dinner, before falling to the lowest point of the day just before bedtime. Although there are many individual differences in the high and low points of these energy cycles, most people’s cycles remain fairly constant.
Tension too has its own daily pattern. The average person under stress begins with little tension upon awakening. Then as the stress-filled day progresses, tension gradually mounts, often reaching a high level in the late afternoon when energy has dropped to one of its lowest daily points. Tension may continue to increase into the evening, but usually diminishes, and its influence at that time is mainly because of the low levels of energy that the person is experiencing. If you do not reduce your tension, you can expect insomnia, which in turn will sap your energy and leave you more prone to tension the next day.
Everyone’s cycles are bit different and may vary from time to time, but it is not difficult to get a good sense of your own. And knowing your cycles makes it easier to schedule things appropriately. When possible, stressful activities should be scheduled during high energy periods, and less demanding activities should be scheduled during low energy times.
The Body As Sunday School Teacher
If we listen at all closely, the body tells us how to achieve a fairly constant state of calm energy: we need to get plenty of sleep, to eat well and regularly, to keep close with friends, to get plenty of exercise, to meditate and/or pray, to listen to music, to make love. When we lose sight of such simple truths we instinctively turn to other forms of raising energy: caffeine, sugar, alcohol and various drugs. We whipsaw our bodies from the rush of tense energy to the crash of tense tiredness. In doing so, we tell ourselves that our heads are smarter than our bodies, yet we know in our guts that it simply isn’t so.
Talking to Your Moods in their own Language
A craving for a candy bar is a not-so-subtle demand to raise energy—a demand that can be better satisfied with short walk. Here, following Robert Thayer’s simple model, are how common behaviors alter our moods for good or ill.
Moderate exercises such as walking increase energy and often reduces tension. Over time, physical conditioning gives a person more overall energy, and that in turn makes one less likely to be bothered by tension.
Calling friends is the most common way people try to escape bad moods. The simplest explanation is that talking reduces tension and therefore boosts energy. The perception, however, is that we share each other’s energy and thereby reduce tension.
Strenuous exercise reduces tension and probably increases energy after we recover from the immediate fatigue, about 45 minutes or so later.
Meditation or prayer reduces tension and thus increases energy. It is a great way to turn tense energy into calm energy (say at late morning) or to turn tense tiredness into calm tiredness, and thus be able to sleep.
Listening to music reduces skeletal tension and thus increases energy. Music is often associated with
pleasant memories so it is a conditioned emotional reaction.
Shopping helps many women, but not most men, to change their moods. (The ratio of stores devoted to women compared to men is roughly ten to one.)
Caffeine is most likely to create tense-energy, which while better than no energy, is not nearly as productive as calm energy.
Sugar Snacks boost energy immediately. An hour later, however, tension increases and the person becomes more tired that before the snack. Eating another snack typically raises anxiety.
Alcohol lowers tension and therefore give an energy boost.
Nicotine simultaneously boosts energy and decreases muscular tension providing a powerful, if very brief, boost in mood.
Stephen Kiesling is the former editor in chief of Spirituality & Health.