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Who’s Changing Your Mood? The Yawning Example

The human mind

What went into making up the mood you’re in right now, or the mood you were in this morning, or the mood you’ll be in ten days from now? The logical answer might seem to be that our moods are determined by what happens to us–that if someone spilled coffee on you and you got a flat tire, you’d be in a bad mood, but if you came home to find out someone had left a present on your doorstep, you’d be in a good mood.

This is often true–we often react emotionally to our circumstances–but it’s also not uncommon for us to focus our attention on and be driven by other things. If someone spills coffee on me and I get a flat tire but I’m thinking about how marvelous my girlfriend is the whole time, my troubles might roll off me like marbles rolling off a VW Beetle, and I might be in a terrific mood. So it’s not so much our direct circumstances that affect our moods as how we think about our circumstances.

Contagious behavior
And that would be the main point of this post, as it has been of some other posts I’ve written (like “Having a Bad Day? Here’s Why” and “How to Stop Having a Bad Day“), except that there’s another factor that changes moods, one that’s a little surprising. Malcolm Gladwell talks about it in his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. He uses the example of the lowly yawn.

Yawning is a surprisingly powerful act. Just because you read the word “yawning” in the previous two sentences–and the two additional “yawns” in this sentence–a good number of you will probably yawn within the next few minutes. Even as I’m writing this, I’ve yawned twice. If you’re reading this in a public place, and you’ve just yawned, chances are that a good proportion of everyone who saw you yawn is now yawning too, and a good proportion of the people watching the people who watched you yawn are now yawning as well, and on and on, in an ever-widening, yawning circle.

Out of curiosity, did you yawn when you saw the picture at the beginning of this post?

How your friends’ friends’ friends feel
Yawning isn’t the only thing that spreads from person to person easily. Moods and attitudes like depression, excitement, anxiety, and optimism also spread through groups. If your friends are feeling a particular way, you’re somewhat likely to feel that way too. The same is true of the way your friends’ friends feel, and even of the way your friends’ friends’ friends feel (though after that, the effect drops off into statistical insignificance). This effect is discussed in my article “How Are Your Friends’ Habits Changing You?,” and it’s a main topic of Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler’s book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.

Influencing our own moods

So what help is it to know this? Well, if we’re aware of the influence other people’s moods and actions can have on our own moods, we can take active steps to do something about it. For instance, the yawning example above may have caused you to think about being tired, especially if it actually made you yawn. I apologize for this, but the point seemed important enough to be worth it. So knowing that you may be getting influenced to feel more tired, you can consciously redirect your thoughts to non-tired things. What’s something exciting you’ll be doing later today, or later this week, or this year? Do you like coffee? Who’s the most energetic person you know? Can you picture that person doing something typically energetic? If you have the time, you might even try watching an energetic video, or starting a conversation with someone who has a lot of energy and goodwill to share. Another useful alternative is using music: see “How and Why Music Changes Mood.”

In other words, visualizing appropriate situations and exposing ourselves to the kinds of moods we want to create can turn the subtle forces that influence our moods in our favor, especially when those same forces have already causes an effect we don’t like. Becoming aware of our moods and what’s influencing those moods can give us new power to feel the way we want to feel.

Photo by HilaryQuinn

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