Could Moods Be Biological?

by Hiyaguha Cohen

We often hear people say, “I’m just not in a good mood,” and we usually attribute that to something going wrong in that person’s life, whether it’s family issues, money problems, or relationship woes. What if our moods were governed by an overall pattern that the whole world followed? Well, a new study out of Cornell University has found that there just may be such a pattern.

The study, conducted by sociologists Michael Macy and Scott Golder, analyzed over half a billion messages posted on Twitter by 2.4 million English-speaking individuals in 84 countries. To do this, the scientists fed the messages into a computer program and searched for about 1000 words that had either negative or positive connotations. They then evaluated the messages by hour of the day, looking for those value-laden keywords. According to the system, words like “awesome” and “fantastic” denote a happy mood, while words like “annoyed” and “afraid” indicate a down mood.

Upon analysis, the results showed a clear pattern: people everywhere in the world used their happiest language and ostensibly were in their brightest mood first thing in the morning, typically between 6:00 and 9:00 am. Then, there was a slow decline, with people getting in progressively worse moods until 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon. Moods started climbing up the happiness scale again after that, peaking a bit after dinner. The analysis found that people were in their worst moods on Monday, with moods getting sunnier by the day until peaking on the weekend. Logic would seem to point to the horrors of the workplace as being the cause of the afternoon slump — a few hours at work and people lose all hope and joy. The same thing would apply for the Monday blues, when people have to go to work after enjoying time off. Unfortunately, under scrutiny, that logic doesn’t seem to hold up. The fact is that the pattern holds up on weekends too, when work is not a factor, with happiness peaking at nine in the morning and nine at night, and late afternoons bringing the doldrums. The weekend highs run a few hours later than the weekday highs, probably because people sleep later Saturday and Sunday. But even on weekends, people suffer the same afternoon slump.

The question raised by this study is whether, in fact, we humans really do come equipped with standard-issue, built-in time clocks that regulate mood. Assuming that there is some validity to this study, that circadian or biological factors rule our moods, it’s certainly also true that other factors play a big role. There are the individual events in our lives, of course, which can make us feel giddy or miserable no matter the time of day, although perhaps unhappy events make us feel worse in the afternoon than they do in the morning. And then there’s the influence of global events. Another study out of the University of Vermont also analyzed Tweets and found that world events influence happiness trends worldwide, even when the people posting had no direct involvement in those events. The earthquake in Japan triggered the second greatest mood slump on record. But interestingly, the lowest point in global mood on record came with the death of Osama bin Laden. Go figure. And perhaps, not surprisingly, given the state of the world economy, overall, happiness in the world has been declining in the past year.

Then there’s the obvious fact that diet influences mood. It’s interesting that people are happiest before eating in the morning and after digesting in the evening. Could it be that lousy food choices worldwide put people in a slump, so that by midday they’re depleted and nasty from the fallout? Is it connected to the insulin spikes caused by high glycemic meals and snacks that leads to a “high,” followed by the subsequent crash as the sugar is metabolized and insulin levels plummet? Could it be that the tendency to eat junk food in the mid to late afternoon is a misguided attempt at self-medication, wanting sugar or caffeine or alcohol to stimulate the drooping mood? The possibility gives an interesting spin to the pre-dinner institutions of teatime in Great Britain and happy hour in the US. Certainly bolstering the system through healthy diet, supplementation, and natural energy boosters would be a wiser fix than trying to patch the slump with a doughnut and coffee – not to mention a shot of alcohol depressant at the bar.

For more information on depression and how to fight it, click here.

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