Want to boost your brain power right now? Get into a positive mood!
According to research, a good mood improves working memory and decision making. That's the conclusion of studies that looked at how mood affects brain power.
"Working memory" is the type of memory you use when learning new information and solving problems. Working memory itself is located in the prefrontal cortex, part of the brain behind your forehead.
How does a good mood strengthen working memory? The dopamine hypothesis, proposed in 1999 by researchers Ashby, Isen, and Turken,1 suggests that a positive mood increases the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the prefrontal cortex. Higher levels of dopamine directly enhance the performance of working memory.
In a study published in 2013 in the journal Cognition & Emotion, researchers Carpenter, Peters, Vastfjall, and Isen announced that older adults who were put in a mildly good mood performed significantly better in a decision-making experiment.2
To induce a positive mood, researchers in this study gave participants a small bag of candy and a Thank You card when they arrived. To keep the participants in a good mood, the computer they used displayed a cheery wallpaper of smiling suns on a sky-blue background.
The control participants did not receive candy or a card, and their computer had a neutral wallpaper. Those in a good mood made noticeably better decisions in response to the challenges presented in the study.
And it's not just seniors who benefit from a positive mood. As the authors noted,
These results are consistent with the substantial body of empirical evidence showing that mild positive feelings improve people's ability to think carefully, flexibly, and efficiently about multiple factors in a situation, integrating the needed information.
(Below I'll give you some tips on how to enhance your own mood.)
In 2010, Nadler, Rabi, and Minda performed a related study which also investigated the effect of mood on working memory and decision-making. As they pointed out, "Generally, positive mood has been found to enhance creative problem solving and flexible yet careful thinking."4
These studies and others have shown that being in good mood can help you out-perform someone who is in a neutral or bad mood. It's more enjoyable to be in a good mood, too - so why not cultivate a positive mood each day?
A positive mood may enhance your performance at school, at work, and other activities where problem solving is required. Improve your mood to give your brain a boost!
If you feel grumpy, take action to cheer yourself. Here are some mood-boosters that many people find effective.
Uplifting Computer Wallpaper. If you spend a lot of time on your computer, select a pleasant scene or photograph as your background wallpaper. That way, you'll often see an image that induces happy thoughts.
I've created some free "happy suns" wallpaper for you (download at right). It's the same type of computer background used in the Cognition & Emotion study mentioned above.2 It may just put a smile on your face!
Focus on "The Now". Clear negative, worrying thoughts from your mind. Concentrate on your breathing to calm your mind. As distracting thoughts occur, acknowledge them and let them pass. Then refocus on the in-and-out pattern of your breaths.
Give Small Gifts, or Do Small Favors. In my experience, giving an unexpected gift or doing an unexpected favor boosts your mood at least as much as receiving one.
One day at work a few years ago, I quietly paid for the lunch of the fellow in line behind me without telling him. Imagine his surprise when he got to the cash register! Seeing his happy, positive reaction put me in good mood the rest of the day, and I received a nice thank-you card from him later.
Incidentally, a couple months after that he was transferred to my department and became my direct supervisor. Who says there's no karma?
Listen to Baroque Music. According to research, baroque classical music lifts some people's mood.
For a quick mood boost, listen to Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi.6
Avoid "The News". We all want to keep up-to-date on current events, but 90% of the stories in newspapers and on TV are depressing, frightening, or upsetting.
When you've got important or challenging work to do, avoid watching or reading the news.
Yoga and Exercise. Researchers have found that "Yoga and exercise have beneficial effects on mood and anxiety."3
Take up yoga or start another type of daily exercise program such as walking, biking, or strength training.
Throw Away Your Negative Thoughts, Literally. Researchers with Ohio State University and Universidad Autonoma de Madrid in Spain found that physically throwing away a negative thought can trick your mind into forgetting the thought. This makes room for positive thoughts and may enhance your mood.
When a negative, unwanted thought occurs, write it down on paper. Then crumple up the paper and throw it in the trash can. Or type the thought into a document on your computer, then drag the document to the computer Recycle Bin.
"Of course, even if you throw the thoughts in a garbage can or put them in the recycle bin on the computer, they are not really gone - you can regenerate them," said researcher Richard Petty. "But the representations of those thoughts are gone, at least temporarily, and it seems to make it easier to not think about them."10
Think About Positive Events. When you're feeling a bit down, spend a few moments thinking about the positive activities in your life such as an upcoming vacation or a past fun event.5
Drink Peppermint Tea. Research suggests compounds in peppermint tea can boost alertness and mood. If you don't like tea, diffuse peppermint essential oil as a mist into your room air. Or simply dab a drop or two of peppermint oil on your skin.
Smile Like You Mean It. A fake smile on your face might improve the mood of the person next to you, but to enhance your own mood put on a real smile.5
Put on a Fake Smile. A real smile is probably best, but it turns out even a false smile will improve your mood.
Researchers at the University of Kansas found that subjects who held chopsticks between their teeth recovered significantly faster from a stressful task. Holding an object such as chopsticks in your mouth tricks the brain into thinking you're smiling.
Feel-good neurotransmitters are released in the brain as a result, just as when you are actually happy. So to boost your mood, fake it 'till you make it!6
Get a Good Night's Sleep. Chronic fatigue leads to low mood. Do whatever it takes to achieve restful sleep each night.
Write a Thankfulness List. Those who write down lists of the good things in their lives enjoy a better mood, according to research.
You can thank someone directly for all they do for you. Or, simply jot down what's positive in your life. Your health, your home, your friends, a successful project at work.
You'll begin to realize there's more to you than the negative you may have been focused on.9
Snack on Natural Mood Boosters. Some brain foods contain substances that lift mood naturally. For a quick pick-me-up, have a cup of green tea, a bite of chocolate, or some blueberries, raspberries, or strawberries.8
I think anyone would rather be in a good mood than a bad mood. But it's valuable to know that a positive mood improves your working memory and decision-making ability. Use that fact to your advantage!
A good mood is powerful brain booster, and it's available to you free, anytime.
(1) Ashby, Isen, Turken. "A neuropsychological theory of positive affect and its influence on cognition." Psychology Review 1999 Jul;106(3):529-50. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10467897
(2) Carpenter, Peters, Vastfjall, and Isen. "Positive Feelings Facilitate Working Memory and Complex Decision Making Among Older Adults." Cognition & Emotion 2013 27:1, 184-192. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2012.698251
(3) Nadler, Rabi, and Minda. "Better Mood and Better Performance: Learning Rule-Described Categories Is Enhanced by Positive Mood." Psychological Science 2010 21: 1770. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0956797610387441
(4) Streeter, Whitfield, Owen, et al. "Effects of Yoga Versus Walking on Mood, Anxiety, and Brain GABA Levels." The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 2010; 16 (11): 1145 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1089/acm.2010.0007
(5) Scott, Barnes. "A Multilevel Field Investigation of Emotional Labor, Affect, Work Withdrawal, and Gender." Academy of Management Journal, Volume 54, Number 1 February 2011.
(6) Kraft & Pressman. "Grin and bear it: the influence of manipulated facial expression on the stress response." Psychological Science, 2012; 23(11):1372-8. doi: 10.1177/0956797612445312. Epub 2012 Sep 24.
(7) Mohiuddin and Lakhani. "Baroque Classical Music in The Reading Room May Improve Mood and Productivity." American Roentgen Ray Society 2009.
(8) Martinez-Mayorga, et al. "Good mood foods: Some Flavors in Some Foods Resemble a Prescription Mood Stabilizer." American Chemical Society (ACS) 2012.
(9) Lauren Aaronson. "Make a Gratitude Adjustment." Psychology Today, 18 Nov 2013.
(10) Pablo Brinol, Margarita Gasco, Richard E. Petty, and Javier Horcajo. "Treating Thoughts as Material Objects Can Increase or Decrease Their Impact on Evaluation Psychological Science." Psychological Science, 2012 DOI: 10.1177/0956797612449176
Last Updated: 06/11/2020
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