When you’re down in the dumps, avoiding sweets and working up a sweat are probably the last things on your mind. If you’re like most people, just about the only muscles worth moving are the ones guiding your thumb on the TV remote. But fear not — boosting your mood isn’t controlled only by exercise and diet, or tiny white pills. You have options.
Boosting your mood, it should be said, is vital to your mental health. Major Depressive Disorder, the grandfather illness to clinical depression, typically begins as a general mood disorder — a nagging malaise you just can’t shake, before it spirals downward out of your control. Both environmental and chemical in nature, mood disorders can be tamed through certain mindful activities. Here are six, which you’ve probably never heard of, to get you started.
1. Draw Your Food
A study conducted last year showed that when people drew foods like pizza and cupcakes, as opposed to subjects that drew healthier foods or nothing at all, their reported moods were substantially greater. Drawing pizza, for example, lifted moods 28 percent. Drawing peppers, on the other hand, lifted them only one percent. The takeaway? It may not necessarily be the consumption of high-fat and high-sugar foods that pleases us. Sometimes the notion of it at all is enough to light up our brains.
2. Fake It Till You Make It
For much of psychology’s storied history, body language was thought to be the result of our feelings of emotion. But Harvard University’s Dr. Amy Cuddy, along with a growing school of researchers, are finding that body language can be the cause of our emotions — that standing like Wonder Woman, with our legs apart and hands on our hips, tricks our brains into believing that we are, in fact, sad.
If I’m standing like this, the brain apparently thinks, I must feel in control. And so, mood spikes. Cuddy has actually found the sweet spot for this: two minutes. Stand in that power pose for 120 seconds and the boost of testosterone and adrenaline will temporarily make you feel powerful. Combine it with the similar effects of smiling, and after enough time your mood has little choice but to perk up.
3. Cod Liver Oil, Down The Hatch
So-called “healthy fats,” such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are finally emerging to scientists as viable candidates to improve your mood. If you can stomach it, a 2006 study found that cod liver oil consumption correlated negatively with depression in the general population, even after controlling for a bunch of factors, such as alcohol and coffee consumption, smoking habits, age, gender, and exercise levels. What’s more, the longer people used cod liver oil, the less likely they were to suffer depressive symptoms.
When was the last time you looked at old photograph, or traded childhood memories with an old friend? Nostalgia, the tether than keeps us anchored to the past, has been shown over and over in scientific research to make our lives feel more meaningful. One study carried out last year found that nostalgic stories — those tending to start out bad, but ending on a high note — essentially confuse our brains into thinking the events are taking place right in front of us. If the story ends hopeful, we’ll be hopeful.
Study leader Dr. Constantine Sedikides explained that nostalgia has a strong social component. “You end up with a stronger feeling of belonging and affiliation,” he said, “and you become more generous toward others.” This social connectivity in turn makes us feel like we’re involved in something much larger than ourselves. And believe it or not, that feels kind of nice.
5. A Touch Is All It Takes
If you and someone close to you are both feeling down, don’t stray from one another. Human contact has the interesting property of bridging physical connection with emotional connection. The all-important hug, for example, releases a cascade of oxytocin in our brains. This hormone, also known as the “love hormone,” causes us to feel close to someone: The science is in the language itself.
A simple touch on the shoulder, it turns out, may be enough to quell feelings of existential dread. Even touching inanimate objects, such as teddy bears, can yield the same effects, researchers point out.
6. Belt One Out
Singing as a way to boost your mood has more anecdotal evidence behind it than hard science, but our rigorous understanding of birds, infamous for their singing prowess, leads researchers to believe the pleasure birds derive from singing shouldn’t be all that different from what we get out of it. A study conducted in 2008 found that while birds naturally derive a sense of enjoyment from singing, it’s actually in the form of a dopamine response. This means it involves the brain’s reward center. Human brains release dopamine after we do hard drugs, or eat chocolate. Avian brains apparently show the same effects during singing, and even more so when males sing to females.
This could explain not only why music sometimes feels so addictive, but why it is so adept at lifting our spirits — even when we’re alone, singing into our shampoo bottle in the shower.