By Yvonne Milosevic
If you’re following public health guidelines closely, you probably won’t be taking your usual winter vacation or attending a mega New Year’s Eve bash this year. Most of us are just trying to keep it together as we near the end of the dumpster fire that is 2020.
Yup, we’re definitely #inamood this holiday season. All we want to do right now is daydream about better days ahead. But according to the Association for Psychological Science, daydreaming can have a dark side. Often, people grappling with pessimistic thoughts/under stress (hello COVID!) become more susceptible to negative feelings when their minds wander.
And new research from the Kellogg School finds that imagining something fun won’t cheer us up when we’re feeling low. In fact, it has the opposite effect. As marketing professor Aparna Labroo discovered, “The more you try to imagine yourself engaging in a positive activity when you are experiencing a negative mood, the less likely you are to want to engage in that enjoyable activity.”
So, what’s the reason for this unexpected outcome? “The human mind is geared to be cognitively efficient,” Labroo explains. “So if things are easy to process, we tend to like them more.”
Our brains struggle to reconcile positive thoughts with the mental and physical experience of a bad mood, she adds. Plus, we resist things that are hard to process because it’s too mentally taxing.
“When we are in a bad mood, it is difficult to simulate the experience of doing something enjoyable—and we attribute the difficulty of simulating to the enjoyable activity itself.”
Half of the people Labroo surveyed said they used daydreaming about enjoyable activities to cope with their bad moods. Indeed, nearly a quarter said it was their go-to method for getting out of a gloomy funk. But in experiments, participants in the “bad mood” group had trouble imagining enjoyable activities and instead tried to avoid them.
Skip the Daydreaming and Do This
The “facial feedback hypothesis” states that our facial expressions directly affect our emotional experience. We smile when we feel happy, but the action of smiling—even when we feel blue—can make us feel happier, too.
Labroo tested this hypothesis by having some study participants hold a biscuit between their teeth. It sounds wacky, but this action created a “mechanical” smile and inhibited the muscles required to frown.
Next, they had participants imagine singing the uplifting “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and the more solemn “Silent Night.” The other half imagined singing the same two songs—without the biscuit. The bad-mood participants who held the biscuit in their teeth reported preferring the more upbeat song. Meanwhile, the no-biscuit group chose “Silent Night.”
Finally, the researchers predicted participants would prefer an enjoyable activity if they focused on the outcome of that activity rather than the process of doing it.
Bad-mood participants considering the process of singing the two tunes frequently preferred the somnolent “Silent Night,” the researchers found. But those who considered how they’d feel after singing the songs favored the cheerful “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
“If I’m considering calling up a friend, I’ll think, ‘She’ll be cheerful, and I’ll have to try to be cheerful,’ and that just feels really difficult,” Labroo says. “But if I think about how I’ll feel at the end of the call—I know I’ll be smiling, I’ll feel happy.”
Advice for These Troubled Times
So, what’s the takeaway as we slog through this pandemic and the holiday season upon us? Labroo says we need to stop daydreaming and start doing.
“Look, there are safe and enjoyable things that one can do. For example, one can reach out more to others,” Labroo says. “People who are especially struggling and would benefit from reaching out—I think they should just do it.”