More About Faces and Mood

Today I spoke to someone who has been looking at his face in a mirror every morning to raise his mood. “It’s a big effect,” he said. It raises his mood “about 30 points” on a 0-100 scale where 0 = misery, 50 = neutral, and 100 = ecstasy. He starts around 6 am and does it for about an hour. This is close to what I observed with TV faces: one hour of faces at the best time produced about a 30-point improvement.

Thirty points, however wonderful, is not enough to change his life, he said; he would need 60 points for that. He has been in and out of mental hospitals several times and of course mental illness of that severity destroys all sorts of things we need, such as a decent job and friendships. As he looked at the diagram (two causes of depression) on p. 237 of my self-experimentation paper, his situation sunk in on him. It wasn’t just lack of morning faces that was making him depressed; it was also on-going life events.

My guess is that most Americans, asked to rate their mood, would say they are around 50 — neutral. Sure, they procrastinate, and bad traffic bothers them, but on the whole life is okay. But when something awful happens — they lose a job or a spouse, for example — their mood goes way down and takes a very long time to come back up. It is like AIDS. Our mood regulatory system, which requires morning faces to work properly, functions like our immune system to fight off damage and push us back to normal. In most people, unfortunately, that system is broken, just as AIDS sufferers lack a working immune system. So many people have far too much trouble getting rid of crippling bad moods. I suspect that most addictions, including the food addictions behind serious obesity, Internet addiction and video-game addiction, are self-medication to get rid of bad mood. It is the fact that the addictive act pushes a mood of 20 or 30 up to 50 that makes it so attractive. One of my students investigated the connection between depression and drug addiction; in her small sample, the depression always came first.

Earlier post about faces and mood.

Addendum: A February 2007 article in the American Journal of Psychiatry about bariatric-surgery candidates (average BMI = 52) reported this:

The discrepancy between lifetime and current substance use disorders was striking (32.6% versus 1.7%).

In other words, they used to take drugs but they don’t any more — possibly because food has replaced drugs.

8 Replies to “More About Faces and Mood”

  1. FYI: There is huge happiness research which suggests that Americans are somewhat happy, according to Dacher Keltner. So the figure is probably closer to 60-70 rather than 50. Amsterdam has the highest ratings for happiness. More economically egalitarian countries are happier. The research finds no gender differences in happiness.

    I don’t know if there is any research on whether Americans suffer bigger mood dips with trauma and failure than other cultures. I suspect Americans’ notorious unrealistic optimism, and intolerance of contradiction get them into trouble. A bad thing happening may turn out to be good in the long run.

    I’m sure that mood often drives “addictions”; though a friend I worked with on heroin addiction issues said that often he thought people were not trying to “kill the pain”. And of course it’s easier to get “addicted” to very strong tasting ditto foods — junk foods — which I have no doubt have grown far more strong tasting in recent years with the flavor chemists doing their work.

    But in my case, I got clinically severely depressed in 1982, stayed depressed in varying degrees, and overate a lot, and by 1996 had gained more than 100 pounds — from 182 to 286. Though I actually got a bit higher. It’s very important to note that I lost most of the weight while remaining fairly depressed. When I began to turn the depression around in 2003, I was 50 pounds lighter.

    In depression people tend to eat less or eat more. I ate more (and slept more.) So it’s important for depressed, overweight people to see that you can be depressed and override hunger and lose weight — which itself gives hope and empowerment.

  2. Yeah, I know about those ratings that Keltner mentions. I’m inclined to think that people answer a question about happiness differently than a question about mood. I think happiness is somewhat equated with absence of wants (as in “are you happy now?). Whereas by mood I mean something completely visceral. When I look around — at people on the street for example — it is very rare to see someone who looks or acts happy. Practically everyone seems to be neither happy nor sad. We take this as a fact of life but I don’t think everywhere is like this. A friend of mine went to a poor country in Africa and came back surprised how happy the people were. Happier than Americans.

  3. If you trust Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on mood, flow and happiness, where he had people respond to random beepers and write down what they were experiencing/doing/feeling at the moment, people are happiest (best mood??) in a state of flow — states of absorption where their energies/abilities are challenged but not overwhelmed, where there is feedback as to how they are doing — states of meaningful engagement. I doubt they are smiling at such times.

    So I wonder how much facial expressions are an index of mood. I assume Ekman/Keltner/Levenson etc. have ideas about this…

  4. It might be interesting to look for any correlations between the use of subways/trains, employment and depression. People who need to see lots of faces on their way to their morning jobs should theoretically have better moods than those who are stuck in their cars or looking at the back of another seat. If you use employment as a way of controlling for socioeconomic gaps, it might be a good indicator. Subways would be better than commuter trains, and far better than solo car commuters, etc. And theoretically, a longer subway commute would correlate to a better mood than a shorter one (!).

    Another possibility would be to study the differences between bartenders and morning baristas. Both see lots of faces but bartenders late at night and baristas early in the morning. The baristas should be much happier if your theory holds.

    Personally, I somewhat doubt the effects of faces. I moved from the US where I was a get in the car, listen to NPR and drive to work single guy to Japan where I’m now a walk to the train station, stand in the train and walk the rest of the way to work kind of guy and despite a much higher daily dose of morning faces, I don’t think my mood is better. And my mood on weekends when I don’t need to commute seems even better although I’m sure a lack of work helps there.

  5. I have tried to get a helpful dose of faces on the subway or a crowded bus but I couldn’t — you can’t look at strangers that way. You need to see what you would see when you are having a conversation with someone. In my experience, that never happens on public transportation unless you are actually having a conversation. And that is very rare.

    I know of two people who felt much better when their job required them to have face to face contact in the early morning than when the same job required them to have the same contact at other times. One was a waitress; the other a doctor.

  6. “Europeans smile much less than Americans, and the perpetual complaint among Europeans is that Americans smile TOO much.”

    Yes, I hate to make generalizations like this, but its true: American’s tend to be much more friendly with strangers and in public than Europeans.

    I’m not sure if this means that Americans are in better moods than Europeans. But without a doubt, the irrational friendliness of Americans puts me in a good mood. its an asset.

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