My Favorite Things: Are You a Moody Person?

Posted inCreative Voices

What if you are?

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Interesting question…how would you answer it?

For most of us, being labeled as “moody” means that people see us as being either “hot” or “cold.” Some days you’re fine and other days you’re unapproachable. Sometimes you’re friendly, other times you’re aloof.

“Moody” is often shorthand for “unpredictable.” (“He’s so moody…I don’t know what gets into him sometimes…”)

But, what are “moods” and where do they come from?

We all know that one day is not the same as other days.

Some days we look out at the world and see nothing but dismal shades of gray.

Other days…you’re walkin’ on sunshine!

That raises some questions.

Do moods originate in ourselves and color the world that we experience?

Or, do they originate in the world and have psychological effects on us?

Like so many questions of this kind, the answer is that the question itself is not well-posed.

Our moods emerge from our individual caring/being-in-the-world.

What does that mean?

Everyday language gives us some clues. Notice that we say, “I’m in the mood for ….” We don’t say, “the mood is in me for….” That implies that already find ourselves in an affective state when we pause to think about doing something.

Think about what happens when someone asks you a question like: “Are you in the mood for Italian food?

How do you know if you’re in the mood for Italian?

What do you do when you’re asked that question?

Whom are you checking with to determine the answer?

At moments like this we seem to retreat to…somewhere…to determine…somehow…if we’re in a state…whatever that means…for doing something in the world…that either matches that state or not.

This gives us some clues for learning about moods.

First off, we’re always living in some mood or other. That may not be immediately obvious as most of the time our moods may not be remarkable or noticeable. However, we are always disposed to being-in-the-world in some manner. This can be seen by contrasting three sets of affective experiences: emotions, feelings, and moods.

Moods are unlike emotions. Emotions are immediate evolutionarily-based pleasurable or unpleasurable bundles of physiological, cognitive, and behavioral reactions to specifically triggering situations. Classical emotion theory was described by Charles Darwin in his 1872 work, The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals.

Darwin wrote about six emotions that evolved in animal/human biology as mechanisms to enable the two most fundamental life tasks: survival and reproduction. In the book, Darwin both described and showed photos of people’s faces that were cross-culturally recognizable expressions of six fundamental emotions: fear, anger, disgust, sadness, surprise, and joy.

A century later psychologist Paul Ekman used Darwin’s work as the foundation for his Facial Actions Coding System. More recently, in his book, Understanding Comics, cartoonist Scott McCloud drew a set of culture/gender-neutral emotionally expressive faces based on Ekman’s model.

Unlike emotions, moods are not as immediate, situationally specific, nor interpersonally universal as emotions. Charging grizzly bears immediately elicit fear for people all over the world. Nothing similar can instantly trigger a mood. Emotions are also typically short-duration experiences. Immediate stimuli elicit emotional reactions, including adaptive behavioral responses, and then subside. Not so with moods.

Moods are also different from feelings. According to Darwin’s model, emotions are automatic, universal, physiologically-based reactions. Feelings are conscious psychological experiences that arise after an emotional reaction. Feelings are more private, personal, unique, and culturally contextual. They often have no noticeable public expression. They can persist for much longer than emotions. Whereas most theorists describe anywhere from five to ten human emotions, there are thousands of words that depict our feelings.

Feelings versus emotions chart, from http://laughteronlineuniversity.com

Where does that leave moods? Unlike emotions, moods are not universal reactions to specific situations. Unlike feelings, moods are less intense, less specifically describable. That means there are far fewer specific terms to depict our moods. Moods are more vague, more akin to an atmosphere or a vibe. The words we use to describe mood are clues to its understanding.

If a mood is like an atmosphere or a vibe, it is a condition that is in-the-world and not just in-myself. Like the “good vibe” we experience, for example, when we enter an enlivened environment —“the place is full of happiness”—it is in the way the world presents itself to us that we discover moods most clearly. Our attunement to this affective tone places us in the atmosphere’s mood.

In this way of thinking, we “catch” or “resonate” with the moods of the world rather than projecting our moods upon the world.

But, we are not all equally attuned to moods. Some of us are more sensitized to some moods than to others. We also differ in the intensity and duration of the moods we experience. We sometimes describe the combination of these characteristic areas of attunement, intensity levels, and persistence as “temperament.” Some of us experience widely varying, strong, persistent moods; others not.

Because moods are typically less well-defined and less “intense” than either emotions or feelings, we often find ourselves in a kind of neutral band of “moodedness”. That is, most often, we’re neither in a noticeably “good” nor “bad” mood. We’re just having a “normal day”.

Unless we’re described as “moody.” Beside unpredictability, “moody” also refers to levels of valence, volatility, and transience of an individual’s affective changes. One minute a moody person is fine, the next, not so much. “His mood changes like the weather…” we say. Moody people are “mercurial.” Opposites of “moody” include “even-tempered” or “calm.”

These ways of framing moods have almost turned “moody” into a character flaw. “Moody” is not a description most of us would find desirable. After all, modern life depends upon predictable, even-tempered people for smooth operations.

But, what if “moodiness” is sensitivity to the invisible ways that an environment’s atmosphere brings it, and us, to life?

What if instead of “moodiness” we saw “moodedness” as the attunement that moves “The Art Spirit” in us to creatively express the varieties of our experience?

What if instead of discouraging an attuned-attachment to the invisible aspects of the world that mood announces, we came to see attunement to these affective dimensions as a valuable way of seeing the world more richly, broadly, and deeply?

What if being sensitive to a situation’s mood were celebrated instead of discouraged?

What if we saw moods as guides toward the poetic forces in life at a time when the prosaic, efficient, and “practical” threaten to overwhelm anything “superfluous” that stands in their path?

What if we chose to focus-on and be-in-our-moods instead of seeking to “shake them off” and get “back to normal”?


Tom Guarriello is a psychologist, consultant, and founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He’s spent over a decade teaching psychology-based courses like The Meaning of Branded Objects, as well as leading Honors and Thesis projects. He’s spearheaded two podcasts, BrandBox and RoboPsych, the accompanying podcast for his eponymous website on the psychology of human-robot interaction. This essay was originally posted on Guarriello’s Substack, My Favorite Things.