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Russell Collins: Mood Magic

Research exercises show promise in 'switching off' the anxiety nature has instilled in us

In a field one summer’s day, a Grasshopper was hopping about, chirping and singing to its heart’s content. An Ant passed by, bearing along with great toil an ear of corn he was taking to the nest. “Why not come and chat with me.” the Grasshopper said, “instead of toiling and moiling in that way?” “I am helping to lay up food for the winter,” the Ant said, “and recommend you to do the same.”

Russell Collins
Russell Collins

Every school kid knows how this one ends, right? With the Grasshopper dying a slow death of cold and starvation, begging the Ant vainly for a bit of grain or something from his winter stores.

For better than 13 centuries, Aesop’s fable of the industrious ant and the profligate grasshopper has been scarring children’s tender psyches with its miserly lesson on the virtues of hard work. Of course, it’s no longer true in advanced societies that winters bring shortages of food, but the story illuminates an unspoken and mostly unconscious conclusion about life that still haunts us:

“Then the Grasshopper knew: It is best to prepare for the days of necessity.”

This gloomy view of life isn’t necessary or even healthy in modern humans. But it survives as a vestige of ancient instincts that probably worked pretty well to keep us toiling through summer to prepare for winter. People who goofed off as the gathering clouds signaled an impending ice age probably didn’t make the evolutionary cut, and so pessimism won out over optimism in the battle for genetic survival, leaving us prone to excessive worrying, anxiety, sour moods and even depression.

In fact, from an evolutionary standpoint, you have to wonder why humans have any capacity at all for those dangerous grasshopper tendencies such as “hopping about, chirping and singing to our heart’s content.” Even people who study these things can be vague about the usefulness of positive emotions for human survival (unlike worrying, say, or fear and aggression. It’s pretty obvious how those emotions helped us survive.)

One idea, first suggested in the late 1980s by Berkeley psychologist Robert Levenson, is that positive emotions function as undoers of negative ones — an “off switch” for fear, worry, anger, etc. This makes even more sense today than it did when Levenson first suggested it. The negative health effects of unremitting stress are recognized more clearly each year. We were designed by evolution — according to Levenson and others — to alternate between periods of contentment and stress as threats in the environment came and went. Positive emotions are the trigger that signals our biochemistry to move into low-stress mode.

More recent studies have refined Levenson’s ideas and identified the mental strategies that characterize ants and grasshoppers. Not surprisingly, it turns out that optimists generally use “savoring” strategies to sustain their positive views of life, while pessimists use what researchers refer to as “dampening” strategies. The meaning of these terms is fairly obvious, I think, but what is less obvious is exactly which strategies work to dispel bad feelings and moods, and how well. This is the question taken up by Belgian researcher Jordi Quoidbach and his colleagues’ forthcoming article in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Quoidbach examined strategies identified by researchers as collectively employed by optimistic people who are high on the well-being scales, with the object of identifying just which strategies worked best to improve overall mood and happiness. The list of strategies include mindfulness, or Being Present, to the moment to moment experiences of life; Behavioral Display, that is,  expressing positive emotions with nonverbal behaviors (studies have shown that the facial expression of emotion may play a major role in shaping your inner emotional experience, for instance); Positive Mental Time Travel, or vividly remembering or anticipating positive events that experimental studies have shown can deeply your level of happiness; and, finally, communicating and celebrating positive events with others, a strategy labeled Capitalizing that is associated with more daily positive mood, over and above just the impact of the positive event itself.

Quoidbach’s study is the first to evaluate these strategies separately, he claims, and what he and his colleagues found was that “in the realm of well-being, not all strategies are created equal.” Paradoxically, the two that work best, by a significant measure, are Being Present and Mental Time Travel, diametric opposites in the sense that one anchors awareness in the present moment, while the other invites you to drift into past and present moments in time. Quoidbach speculates that, as techniques and psychotherapy methods are designed to take advantage of these strategies, different personality styles (e.g. dreamers vs. doers) might be more effectively treated with techniques that correlate to their natural ways of operating in life.

“I just get stuck in these moods after we argue. I can’t seem to come back to the relationship in a loving way.” This is Jerri, a bright 20-year-old concerned that her withdrawing moods will doom her two-year relationship with Todd. Todd has his own problems with intimacy, which we are working on, but he nods as Jerri talks. “I hate it,” he says of Jerri’s withdrawing. “I can’t apologize or anything — at least not in a way that seems to work for her.” Jerri hangs her head and looks miserable.

Jerri is an ant. She worries constantly about the future. An overachiever since kindergarten, Jerri now works in a high-level technology planning job. No winter, no ice age is going to blindside Jerri. So something deep inside her stays alert for signs of scarcity, of abandonment, of things going suddenly out of control. Some primitive part of Jerri fears she will be rejected and cast aside by Todd. So she’d better not be too free with her love and trust. It is best to prepare for the days of necessity.

In Jerri’s case, I gave her a particular Mental Time Travel technique to use when she felt stuck in a bad mood that left her feeling disconnected from Todd. I asked her to travel forward to a time when the particular conflict between them had been resolved, and she was feeling happy and connected again. She was to imagine a specific time and place and picture it in detail, focusing specifically on the feelings of love and affection they would share. Both Todd and Jerri were then to bring into session their thoughts and experiences about the exercise.

Not surprisingly, Jerri reported not just a lifting of her mood, but a general increase in well-being and functioning immediately after the exercise, and lasting several days. “I got in touch with how much bigger my love is for Todd than the little fight we had,” she said. The exercise worked, in other words: The bright and loving future she envisioned with Todd for a few concentrated moments had the power to switch off her fearful worrying.

This doesn’t mean it’s a magic bullet for Jerri and Todd in their difficulties. But it does suggest there’s some power in Levenson’s idea that we can “switch off” the anxiety nature has instilled in us, and replace it with the carefree song of the grasshopper.

— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

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