On some days, waking up and engaging in healthy behaviours is easy — you get up, hit the gym, drink enough water and spend time with friends. On others, even getting out of bed seems like too much effort.
Knowing how to encourage healthy behaviours is therefore pretty useful, and much research has been done on what makes them stick, whether that’s avoiding indulgent friends or paying to remove temptation. And a new study from a Kent State University team, published in Motivation and Emotion, finds that positive mood can also encourage healthy behaviour — at least in the short term.
Over the course of ten days, participants responded to questionnaires administered by email five times a day at random times. First, they rated their current emotional state (e.g. scared, guilty, distressed, happy, or satisfied) using a seven point scale; these ratings were combined to produce overall positive and negative mood scores. Participants also reported whether they had engaged in four healthy behaviours: exercising, spending time with someone supportive, taking part in a hobby, and relaxation or meditation.
As the team anticipated, participants who generally felt more positive mood were likely to engage in healthy behaviours, while those who felt more negative mood were less likely to engage in these behaviours. And momentary changes in mood contributed to such behaviours within participants as well. When participants reported more positive mood at one questionnaire, they tended to report engaging in more healthy behaviours at the next one. (Changes in negative mood, however, had no effect).
Unfortunately, the impact of a good mood didn’t seem to last. Over time, the impact of positive affect on health behaviour started to weaken — in fact, good mood only seemed to have an impact within a day, not across days.
Of course, engaging in healthy behaviours can also increase positive affect: quite obviously, spending time with someone supportive or relaxing in a way you enjoy is likely to make you feel good. But these results suggest a more complex two-way relationship.
Sleep may play a part here: the team suggests that our moods may be “reset” with sleep. Indeed, many of us will have experienced going to bed in a bad mood and feeling a lot better in the morning. Quality of sleep is also relevant: even the best mood can be knocked by a terrible night’s sleep. Exploring the impact of sleep on the longevity of moods and their relationship with healthy behaviours could provide some further insight.
The findings could be helpful in actively encouraging healthy behaviours — if someone finds it difficult to motivate themselves to engage in such activities, encouraging them to do so when they feel content could be a good start. It could also, potentially, reinforce the two-way relationship between positive affect and healthy behaviour — encouraging people to engage in healthy behaviours, boosting their mood and thus encouraging more. For those who struggle with low mood, the team suggests introducing lower-demand activities such as listening to music before working up to exercise or meditation.