Feeling Down? Simply Daydreaming about Something Fun Won’t Help.
But taking action could lift your spirits.
If 2020 has you down in the dumps, you certainly aren’t alone. And you might think that envisioning yourself doing something fun—whether that’s taking a vacation or hugging a friend—will lift you out of your doldrums.
But a new paper from Aparna Labroo, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School, reveals that dreaming of pleasant pastimes while in a bad mood has a paradoxical effect: it makes you less likely to actually want to do them.
“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,” Labroo says.
Why? The trouble stems from the cognitive challenge of reconciling a positive thought with the mental and physical experience of a sour mood.
“The human mind is geared to be cognitively efficient, so if things are easy to process, we tend to like them more,” Labroo explains. The opposite is true too: when things are difficult to process, we tend to resist them. In other words, since it’s mentally taxing to imagine a sunset stroll while feeling low, we just say “bah humbug” to the whole idea.
Why Debbie Downers Avoid Mood-Boosting Activities
Before they got too far into their research, Labroo and her coauthors—Hao Shen
of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Robert S. Wyer of the University of Cincinnati—wanted to make sure they were studying something people actually do in practice. Was it commonplace to imagine an enjoyable activity in order to cope with a bad mood?
It was: in a survey of 213 online participants, 51 percent reported they used this tactic, and 23 percent reported it was how they most often attempted to lift their spirits.
The researchers then set about studying this mood-boosting move more systematically, with the help of 180 students at a university in Hong Kong.
The team divided the students into two groups: the bad-mood group, and the neutral-mood group. The bad-mood group was asked to write about an experience that made them unhappy, while the neutral group wrote about the activities of a typical day. Then, all participants rated how they felt on a six-point scale.
Next, participants were shown two advertisements: one depicting a lively party at a bar, and the other a quiet coffee shop. Both ads contained language that cued viewers to “imagine yourself here.” (In a blow to caffeine-loving introverts everywhere, an experimental pretest with a separate group of participants confirmed that most people believed the bar was a more enjoyable experience than the coffee shop. The research also took place before COVID-19 made both lounging in coffee shops and bars largely verboten.)
Finally, participants rated how difficult they found it to imagine themselves at the coffee shop and at the bar, and how much they preferred the coffee shop or the bar.
“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.”
— Aparna Labroo
The results of the first study confirmed the researchers’ main hypothesis: when in a bad mood, people find enjoyable activities harder to imagine and therefore are more inclined to avoid those activities. Compared with the neutral group, participants in the bad-mood group found it more difficult to imagine themselves at the bar and preferred it less.
To Labroo, these results suggest that “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,” she explains. “It doesn’t feel right anymore, and then we become more likely to avoid that activity.”
Smile, Though Your Heart Is Aching
What, exactly, makes it so difficult to imagine an enjoyable activity when in the throes of a sour mood?
Labroo and her coauthors had a theory: social psychologists have long known
that our emotions and expressions operate in tandem. Our moods shape our facial expressions, but our facial expressions also shape our moods. Smiling cheers you up; frowning kills your buzz.
The researchers suspected this feedback loop might be at work when a person in a bad mood imagines an enjoyable activity—something that would normally prompt a smile. But it’s hard for our brains to imagine something uplifting while our faces and moods are grumpy—and we attribute that conflict to the activity we’re imagining, which makes it feel less appealing.
And if that’s the case, the researchers reasoned, it would also be possible to short-circuit the process by encouraging people in a bad mood to smile while imagining an enjoyable activity. In that scenario, the act of imagining something positive might not feel so strange.
Turn that Frown Upside Down (with a Biscuit)
In designing their next experiment, the researchers didn’t want participants to force a fake smile, which can provoke its own cognitive challenges. Instead, they opted for something more mechanical. Holding a pen, straw, or other cylindrical item in your teeth can create something like a smile—and inhibit the muscles required to frown.
“Now it becomes easy to smile when you are in a bad mood, and that should then increase your preference for the enjoyable activity,” Labroo says.
After an informal survey revealed that people had hygiene concerns—“and felt pretty foolish”—about holding pens in their teeth, the researchers settled on individually wrapped finger biscuits (think of the cookie-like treats used in tiramisu) to induce a smile.
A new group of 130 students put this hypothesis to the test. To begin, just as in the first study, participants wrote about either a negative or neutral experience, and rated how they felt on a 6-point scale.
Next, half of the participants were instructed to place a biscuit between their teeth as they imagined singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “Silent Night.” (An experimental pretest had determined “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” is generally perceived to be the more uplifting song.) The other half imagined singing the same two songs—without the biscuit.
Then, participants rated which song they preferred, with -3 indicating “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and +3 indicating “Silent Night.”
The results confirmed the findings of the first study: in general, participants in the bad-mood group were more likely to prefer “Silent Night” than those in the neutral group. But bad-mood-group participants who held the biscuit in their teeth broke this pattern. “They were just as likely as those in the neutral mood to engage in the enjoyable activity,” Labroo notes—in this case, belting out “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
Focus on the Outcome, Not the Process
Finally, the researchers predicted they would see an uptick in participants’ preferences for enjoyable activities if they focused on the outcome of that activity, rather than the process of doing it. “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. 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.”
Previous research backed her up. “The literature had shown that there is a difference between trying to simulate the process of engaging in something, which usually feels more difficult, and simulating the outcome,” she explains. In the latter case, if the expected outcome is positive, we tend to recognize the benefit of engaging in the activity.
So they tested the idea, recruiting 312 online participants. As in the other two studies, participants wrote about either a negative or a neutral experience and rated how they felt on a 6-point scale.
Then, half the participants were asked to visualize the experience of singing both “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “Silent Night.” The other half were asked to imagine how they’d feel after singing both songs. Then, all participants rated their preferences for the two songs.
Bad-mood participants who had been asked to consider the process of singing the two tunes were more likely to prefer the somnolent “Silent Night.” But the Gloomy Guses who’d considered how they’d feel after singing the two songs gravitated toward the jolly “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
Don’t Think, Just Do
So, what does this mean for all of us trying to ride the waves of an exceptionally strange year? Labroo’s advice is to stop imagining activities and get out there and do them.
“Look, there are safe and enjoyable things that one can do. For example, one can reach out more to others,” she says. “People who are especially struggling and would benefit from reaching out—I think they should just do it.”