Happy People Get the Big Picture

Good Mood Lets You Look Beyond Daily Grind

By Daniel J. DeNoon
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Nov. 20, 2008 -- When you're in a bad mood and have your nose to the grindstone, all you see is the task at hand. But a good mood lets you see how the task fits into the bigger picture.

This isn't a motivational motto, it's the finding from five psychology experiments by marketing researchers Aparna A. Labroo, PhD, MBA, of the University of Chicago, and Vanessa M. Patrick, PhD, MBA, of the University of Georgia.

Research shows that a good mood broadens your attention and lets you see future opportunities. A bad mood, however, tends to make you focus on where you are right now. But how does your mood affect the kinds of choices you make?

Let's say you're at the fridge and see that picture of your smiling children. It makes you happy, thus giving you a broader perspective. Will your ability to look toward the future mean you'll put off dieting until later and indulge in unhealthy food later? Or will your foresight prompt you to ensure your future health by eating healthy food now?

Good Mood, Bad Mood Experiments

Labroo and Patrick first looked at whether feel-good cues prompted people to take things more broadly, and whether feel-bad cues prompt a more literal focus.

In their first study, they asked 58 college students to describe a list of 10 activities. Next to each activity (painting a room, for example) was a little smiley face, a little frowny face, or a little neutral face.

Sure enough, students used more abstract terms to describe the task if it was marked with a smiley face, and use more concrete terms for the frowny-face tasks.

Going beyond smiley faces, the researchers actually put 129 students into a good or bad mood by having them focus on either the best or worst day of their lives. Those in a good mood saw tasks in the abstract (painting beautifies the environment, for example). Those in a bad mood saw tasks more concretely (painting lets me choose my favorite paint color, for example).

In a third experiment, 40 students reported how good they felt. Half were given an abstract task -- they were asked to focus on why they study for exams. The other half got a concrete task -- they focused on how they study for exams. Then they were asked how important academic goals were to them.

Students in a good mood were more likely to find academic goals important when they focused on the abstract why question. Students in a bad mood were more likely to find academic goals important when the focused on the concrete how question.

Next, 90 students were asked to free associate to 10 positive words, 10 neutral words, or 10 negative words -- a task known to put people in a good, neutral, or bad mood. Then the students watched one of two orange juice ads. One ad said you should drink orange juice because it's an investment in your future health. The other ad said you should drink orange juice because it would ensure your health today.

Sure enough, students in a good mood were more likely to say they'd buy orange juice after seeing the future-benefit ad. Those in a bad mood were more likely to buy based on the immediate-benefit ad.

Finally, the researchers asked 69 students to focus on either academic goals or friendship goals. Then the students were asked to re-experience the best or worst day of their lives. After undergoing a free-association task, the students were given a scenario in which a person must decide between studying for an exam the next day or seeing an old friend who is passing through town on the way out of the country.

When cued to think about academic goals, students in a good mood were more likely than bad-mood students to choose studying for the exam. But when cued to think about friendship goals, students in a good mood were more likely than bad-mood students to choose seeing their old pal.

Good Mood, Big Picture

Taken together, Labroo and Patrick say, the findings show that a good mood makes people see things in more abstract terms. A good mood will lead people to adopt general, long-term goals -- but only those long-term goals seen as accessible.

"We propose that a positive mood, by signaling that a situation is benign, might allow people to step back and take in the big picture," they write. "In contrast, a negative mood, by signaling not only danger but its imminence, might focus attention on immediate and proximal concerns and reduce the adoption of abstract future goals."

The study appears in the February 2009 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

SOURCES: Labroo, A.A. and Patrick, V.M. Journal of Consumer Research, February 2009; vol 35, manuscript received ahead of print.

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