Moods are central to our lives. There isn’t a time when we are not in one mood or another. For most of us, our moods are organizing how we feel, what we do and how we explain just about everything to ourselves most of the time. For example, can you remember the last time you said, “I am happy” or “I am unhappy” without following the statement with “because”? No, we always have a story for why we are in whatever mood we’re in—whether it is a good one or a bad one.
I often ask people in my workshops to list all the moods they encounter in themselves and others during a typical week and identify them as positive or negative. People immediately start listing happy, enthusiastic, joyful, eager, ambitious and so forth as examples of positive moods and fearful, angry, depressed, nervous, resigned, frustrated and so forth as examples of negative moods.
If we examine the phenomenon of moods deeply, we can see certain facts that are true for everyone. Moods are automatic, they are normally ‘triggered’ by something and, while we might respond quickly so as to not react to the mood, it appears nonetheless. A mood is also social in that we can be affected and sometime ‘infected’ by another’s mood. Have you ever felt great and gone into a meeting where others are discouraged and gotten sucked into the prevailing mood in the room? We take our moods with us—they are transportable. An unpleasant encounter in the morning might last all day. Perhaps the most pervasive aspect of moods is that they are so pervasive. When we are angry, we’re angry at everything. It is very unusual to be selectively happy. Of course, moods are biological in nature, even though we frequently describe them using psychological language such as ‘attitude’ and ‘unmotivated’.
What is surprising though, if you think about it, is that moods are also related to time. They are what link our past (stories), present experience and current facts, and future (possibilities) together. We are always in some mood or another. Life without mood would be like watching a movie without a musical soundtrack in the background. I also believe the most important aspect of this has to do with how we relate to the future. If our future appears as open and positive, we’re generally in some form of good mood. If our future appears bleak or constrained, we will generally fall into a bad mood.
The implications of this as we grow older is that if we see aging as a downhill slide or as something to be resisted, we will typically fall into resentment, resignation or some level of anxiety. If we accept aging as just the process of life and stop listening to past-based stories about ‘staying young’ and putting off the inevitable decline as long as possible, we will find ourselves living in a mood of serenity, ambition or even wonder.
The key is to see that the only choice is to accept (surrender) or resist (deny). When we accept any aspect of life—including our age—as something we don’t control, then we also have the ability to master our moods. When we live life in a positive mood, our circumstances are secondary—even irrelevant.
Like the song says, “Be Happy!” What the song didn’t say is how. The answer is in understanding that, while we don’t choose our moods, we can choose how we relate to others, our circumstances and ourselves. If we accept life on life’s terms, give up our desire to control ourselves and others, and surrender to circumstances when we don’t have a choice, then we can predictably expect that we will “be happy” to our last days. The Serenity Prayer says it pretty well:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things that I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.