You yell at the dog. You bark at your wife. You’re grouchy all day and don’t know why.
You’re probably suffering from a “mystery mood,” the term social psychologist Tanya Chartrand uses to describe those bad days when you can’t quite put our finger on what’s wrong.
But Chartrand says the cause is not a mystery: Bad moods occur when people fail to achieve an unconscious, perhaps long-standing goal. Without knowing, she says goals influence how you think about yourself and interact with other people.
For example, a man who always competed with his older brother for his parents’ attention while growing up may pick a fight and not know why when his brother visits the family as an adult. Chartrand says just being back in your parents’ home kick-starts the old competitive spirit.
Chartrand tested her mystery-mood theory in her laboratory at Ohio State University by setting subliminal goals for 109 college students she tested. The students were shown scrambled sentences and asked to rearrange the words. Some students were primed to succeed at the task with words like “achieve” and “attain” in the scrambled sentences. Other students were not given those subtle suggestions to do well. All students were then given a new task: to rearrange letters in words to form new words. Some words were easy. For instance, “pots” is easily rearranged to make “tops.” But other words were impossible to rearrange. Finally, all students were asked to fill out questionnaires on their mood.
Chartrand found that students primed to succeed felt good when they unscrambled the easy words and felt bad when they failed at the impossible ones. Students who weren’t primed for success didn’t care whether they did well or not.
Chartrand says the study has real-life implications.
“If you’re bummed out and can’t articulate why, non-conscious goals may be at work,” Chartrand says. “You need to think about what your old goals might have been in similar situations, and replace those old goals with more positive, appropriate ones.”
Chartrand described her research last month to a meeting of the American Psychological Society.
The idea that emotions are influenced by subtle goals may surprise some people, says James Shah, assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Wisconsin.
“Clearly it goes against our thinking of what goals are, that they’re under conscious control, but the research indicates that we aren’t always aware of the source of our goals,” Shah says.
And what we don’t know can hurt us and other people. Chartrand’s previous research suggests that people who fail at non-conscious goals get pushy.
“People try to boost their egos when they fail at these non-conscious goals, and they tend to do it by denigrating others,” she says.
What To Do
Mystery moods don’t have to control us.
Psychologist Arnold Lazarus, author of the book, The 60-Second Shrink, says everyone has ups and downs. “Nobody goes through life in a straight line,” Lazarus says. The key is to not let the small bumps in life get too large. Lazarus advises his clients do a quick soul-searching to pinpoint the source of discomfort and to eliminate unfair demands they make on themselves and others. Lazarus says a “go-with-the-flow” attitude helps.
He follow his own advice. “Yesterday I went to New York City and the traffic was a nightmare,” Lazarus says. “I was late coming home and not in a good mood. And the way I dealt with it was this: I told myself ‘Do you really expect to go through life without getting in a traffic jam, especially in New York City?’”
He popped a recorded book into his car stereo and the traffic didn’t seem so bad.
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