It is true that exercise can help boost your mood. I look forward to a post-workout buzz as much as the next person. But should always being in a positive mood be our driving goal? Are we missing something in our attempts to get rid of negative moods as quickly as possible? This may be the case as psychologist Joseph Forgas (and others) argue.
Forgas, a professor and researcher at the University of New South Wales, recently published Don’t Worry, Be Sad! On the Cognitive, Motivational, and Interpersonal Benefits of Negative Mood. In the article, Forgas suggests that negative mood has too often been seen in a, well, negative light. Instead, Forgas shows in a careful review of the research (much of it from his lab) that negative moods can provide several important advantages.
First, there are specific cognitive effects of negative mood: improved memory, improved judgmental accuracy, reduced gullibility, and reduced stereotyping.
Second, there are some interpersonal benefits: improved attentiveness strategies when making requests of others; increased concern for others with an increased sense of fairness; and closer attention to external information which can lead to more effective persuasion.
Third, and most compelling for those seeking excellence, negative affect can reduce the tendency to create artificial self-handicaps when success is uncertain on a task. (In creating a self-handicap, one hopes to prevent the blow to self-esteem that comes with failure.) People may self-handicap less when in a negative mood because protecting the ego is less relevant (already feeling bad — less at risk if you fail). Thus, negative mood can have the interesting effect of increasing perseverance on tasks. This is something I have observed in coaching, playing sports, and doing sport psychology.
Forgas correctly notes that “negative affect is not always desirable. The beneficial effects of dysphoria are most obvious when negative affect produces greater attention to situational demands or improves motivation. Intense, enduring, or debilitating dysphoria offers no such benefits. I demonstrated the cognitive, motivational, and interpersonal benefits of mild, temporary mood states here, of the kind that people all regularly experience in everyday life.”
So, next time you find yourself in a negative mood, don’t be too quick to try to force it away. Instead, try to use it for motivation, especially when faced with a hard workout or other task. As you push through the difficulty, you may notice that your mood rises naturally as a result of feeling good about your persistence and mastery.
Reference: Forgas, J. (2013). Don’t Worry, Be Sad! On the Cognitive, Motivational, and Interpersonal Benefits of Negative Mood. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(3) 225–232.