Mood and Motivation

Mood is like weather. Moods change and shift without warning, their causes are subtle and at times difficult to predict. With self-observation one may come to notice certain patterns, like feeling particularly irritable during the early spring, or prone to melancholy in the late fall. We may learn certain tricks or develop strategies to shift these moods, but often it feels out of our hands.

We get tripped up in the relationship between mood and action. I have had the experience, and I suspect others have as well, in which I’ve looked forward to some particular event or eagerly awaited the time when I could be available to write or engage in some hobby, only to find when the time arrives that my mood has suddenly shifted and gone sour and now, “I don’t feel like doing it.”

Sometimes this inhibition overcomes the plan and instead of doing the thing we looked forward to doing we do nothing, or engage in usual numbing habits, and the opportunity passes by. Healthy habits we long to integrate go by the wayside. Assignments stay unfinished, paperwork sits in a pile, the novel sits unwritten. This problem is exacerbated by problematic mood states like depression or mania, in which we need that much more energy and focus to do the work that would ground and nourish us. Sometimes our moods are like torrential rain or a tornado; the best we can do is buckle down and wait for it to pass.

I think there are times when our intuition speaks to us and advises us against a course of action, sometimes at a time that feels inconvenient. I am not convinced that this is usually what’s happening when these shifts of mood occur. There is something in us that longs to be actualized in the world, core values that can anchor and inform our lives. There are also parts of us that, for whatever reason, resist these values and resist acting upon our desires for connection, for health, for creative expression, and so forth. Even with this resistance, we can move toward these values and desires. I think we can become more creative and flexible with our responses to mood. We can notice what we always do when a particular mood strikes, and try doing something different. See what happens.

When I decided to commit to exercising, I learned that I rarely if ever am “in the mood” to work out. If I let that mood make my choices, I may sit around the house becoming increasingly mopey and lethargic, not feeling like doing much of anything at all. My mood has not gotten better, it’s worse. If, instead, I decide to go ahead and start exercising, letting myself start slowly and do as much as my body seems inclined to do, I often discover that I walk away from exercising feeling energized, refreshed, and engaged. My mood has vastly improved, and it is not running my life.

I think, like many feelings, mood is telling us something about our experience, but again I see this less as a call to action and more as a weather report. If I’m feeling irritable, then I can proceed through my day with the awareness that I might be irritated and distressed by incidents that would feel negligible on other days. When something like that happens, I can remember to take a breath and temper my response before proceeding. I can admit to my loved ones, “I’m feeling irritable today,” as a good-faith warning to take into consideration. (Not a threat — “Steer clear of me or I’ll bite your head off.”) Sometimes this admission feels uncomfortable because it exposes some of our vulnerability to others, that awareness that we don’t always have it all together and sometimes our thoughts and moods seem to be miscued with the environment.

I don’t advocate wholly ignoring mood.  I seek integrity between “what I feel like doing” and “what I want and need to do.” I often think of an integrated life as a sailing ship. I have this vision of my destination and the path I need to take to arrive. Without that goal, I am simply listing about in the ocean. Yet I need to account for how the wind and tides move so I can harness those energies toward my goal. Some days I may only go forward a little bit, other days I may go forward a lot.

Recently I noticed I was becoming more irritable and feeling overwhelmed, and I decided to create a vacation for myself in which I didn’t go anywhere but took a break from some of my responsibilities. I still engaged in some of the core practices that help me to feel healthy and satisfied with my life, like exercise, writing, and spiritual practice. Part of me longed to withdraw completely but I chose to spend time with friends. I decided to approach this slowly, as I would with exercise: I will just show up and offer as much as I am willing to do. I will slow down. I will breathe through the impulse to rush and add tasks to my to-do list. I will listen for what I want in the moment.