In a Bad Mood? You May Be Imagining It

The science behind imagination and how it affects your mood

Kai Wong
Kai Wong
Aug 20, 2020 · 4 min read
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Image for post
Photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash

I know that many of us are struggling, each of us in our way.

Maybe you’re trying to keep healthy or work hard, but you’ve been in a bad mood for a while.

If so, let me ask you a simple question: Are you able to imagine a better future?

If not, then that may be the root of the problem. You might be missing one of the crucial elements that effects mood.

In his book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Scott Adams talks about the primary culprit of your bad moods being one of five things: Flexible schedule, imagination, sleep, diet, exercise.

Some of these make sense immediately, such as sleep, diet, and exercise.

After thinking a bit, so does having a flexible schedule: new parents are often more stressed out than others because they can’t change their schedules.

But why would a lack of imagination cause your bad moods? Well, to understand that, we need to understand the science behind imagination.

According to Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, one of the unique traits that humans have compared to other animals is the ability to think about the future. In his words,

“The greatest achievement of the human brain is the ability to imagine objects and episodes that do not exist in the realm of the real, and it is this ability that allows us to think about the future.”

Our ability to imagine places and experience can also be a pleasurable experience, so much so that it may motivate us to delay gratification.

In one study, participants were told they had won a free dinner at a fancy French restaurant and were asked when they would like to eat.

Most of them chose to delay their reservation until the following week, so they could spend time imagining their experience in addition to enjoying their meal when the time came.

But the ability to imagine is a double-edged sword. Because we can imagine something negative just as easily as something positive.

And one of the dangers with this is one of the brain’s shortcomings: it tends to fill in future gaps with present information.

If you’re hearing nothing but negative news and events, your brain may drift towards imagining the worst future possible based on the present state of the world.

The future we fear will often not be bad as we imagine it to be (yet another shortcoming of the brain), but irrational fears can still wreck our mental state if we’re not careful. But thankfully, there’s a catch.

Negative imaginations of future events tend to be forgotten, while positive versions tend to endure over time.

That means that as long as you engage your imagination in a positive way, your bad moods can disappear quickly.

So I ask you that question again: Are you able to imagine a better future?

If not, then it may be time to try.

Here’s how.

Don’t ground your imagination in reality

Just because, realistically, there’s only so much you can get done in 24 hours, doesn’t mean that you can’t imagine a future where you do more.

Using your imagination means to think of things that either don’t yet exist or haven’t happened yet. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, imagined a future with new technologies no one had ever seen before and weren’t realistic at the time.

A lot of those technologies exist now, at least partially because of his imagination.

Form a mental checklist for bad moods

Whenever you’re in a bad mood, ask yourself simple questions that go over the 5 likely causes of bad moods. These include things such as:

  • Did I get enough sleep?
  • Have I exercised recently?
  • What did I eat today?
  • Do I feel like I’ve had no free time recently?
  • How do I feel about the future?

It’s very likely that if something stands out on that list, you may be able to take action on that list.

Engage in neutral ‘mental time travel’

Mental time travel (MTT) sounds like a pseudoscience closely related to controversial subjects like affirmations, but it’s different. Even so, I’ll just advocate for neutral MTT.

MTT is simply imagining yourself at a later point in time (usually a short while later) with a neutral effect.

Studies have shown that positive MTT affects happiness and anxiety, while neutral MTT can reduce stress.

Which makes sense.

If you’re super stressed out about an upcoming presentation, imagining a neutral state two weeks after where the end of the world hasn’t happened may help you calm down about it.

One of the popular phrases that people have been using during the pandemic is “When this is all over.” Why not take some time to imagine what that might be like?

Perhaps imagine going out to a restaurant or a crowded baseball game, and see where that leads you. Thinking about it (and telling yourself it will happen in a short while) may be a way to reduce stress.

In the words of JK Rowling:

“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not…the foundation of all invention and innovation…it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

I know that the world may seem like a scary place right now, but all those bad things you’re imagining will happen? It won’t be as bad as you think it will be.

If you can imagine a better future for yourself and the world around you, then you may be on track to better dealing with your bad moods.

And that’s something worth putting your hope in.

I write about UX, Psychology, and Productivity regularly. If you would like to learn more about UX, I’ve created courses about Design Communication and UX Research on a budget.

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Kai Wong

Written by

Kai Wong

UX Designer and Data Visualization Enthusiast. Creator of two online courses on design communication and UX research planning: https://tinyurl.com/y5m2j42v

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Kai Wong

Written by

Kai Wong

UX Designer and Data Visualization Enthusiast. Creator of two online courses on design communication and UX research planning: https://tinyurl.com/y5m2j42v

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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