science of us

A Stubborn Person’s Guide to Improving Your Mood

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Recently it occurred to me that I should maybe look into short-term mood boosting practices. (My long-term mood boosting practice is taking Prozac.) I was preparing to go out for the night, which I did not want to do. My girlfriend was trying to cheer me up, but I did not want to be cheered up. This is how I often am when bad moods strike: determined to make them last as long as possible.

I can’t explain why I’m like this except to say that I am very, very stubborn, and when I decide on something, I really commit. Much of the time this is, I think, a useful trait to have. I’m loyal, driven, and productive — I always get my writing done, even when I really don’t feel like it. But there are also obvious downsides to stubbornness, like being a huge pain in the ass if I have to do anything I don’t want to do. This doesn’t bother me, per se, but I’m aware it can bother others, and unfortunately I care what others think of me. I do not want to be the person who brings down the overall mood with her spontaneous, unrelenting crabbiness.

While I do not particularly want to rid myself of my periodic bad moods, I feel that I should. So, with that in mind, I reached out to some personality and mood researchers to see if they had any advice.

Listen to (happy) music.

According to Yuna Ferguson, an assistant professor of psychology at Truman University, changing one’s mood is — in some cases — a matter of choice. In one study, she found that subjects who were instructed to try to improve their moods by listening to music were able to do so, as long as the music was happy: i.e. Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” worked, but Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” (which you may remember best from Fantasia, and which Ferguson describes as “kind of scary”) didn’t. Point being: effort alone can’t make us happier, but certain tools help more than others, says Ferguson.

Music is one such potentially useful tool, but when I’m grumpy, I rarely remember to turn on music, and if I do, it’s usually music that will make me grumpy and sad. I’ll mark this advice a “maybe.”

Spend money on someone else… ?

According to Elizabeth Dunn, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia and co-author of the book Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending, it makes most people happier to spend a set amount of money on someone else than it does to spend the same amount on themselves. “We conducted this research not only in North America, but also countries around the world,” says Dunn. “We see it even in places where people are struggling to meet their own basic needs, who seem to derive more satisfaction from using their hard-earned resources to benefit other people rather than themselves.”

This, I agree with. I love to buy crap for other people (and myself). But Dunn admits this isn’t so much a viable short-term solution for everyday bad moods as it is a beneficial long-term practice. After all, if you are in a bad mood at a party, what are you going to do, Venmo someone $5? Donate $25 to Beto O’Rourke? Hm. Both great ideas, though I’m not sure either would help in the moment. I’ll consider this a “maybe” as well.


Increasingly desperate for quick fixes, I gathered a short list of common internet suggestions for boosting one’s mood. Among the most popular suggestions: Write down three things you’re grateful for (I will never); meditate (I’d rather die); go for a nature walk (in New York?); have sex (well, if I must); exercise (ugh); smile (don’t tell me what to do). Some of these things are things I know make me feel better, at least somewhat, but how do I convince myself to do them when I really, really don’t want to?

Give up.

Gerald Nestadt is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University, where he studies personality and obsessive compulsive disorder, among other things. In his research, he’s found that while stubbornness is quite common in the general population, it appears as an especially prominent trait among people with OCD or compulsive personalities (a subclinical, non-obsessive personality type).

“Compulsive people like the way they are,” says Nestadt. “You’ve met them. Maybe it’s you, and certainly sometimes me. They really believe there’s one way of doing things and it’s their way. It’s hard for them to see things as gray. They’re more likely to see things as black and white. With regard to stubbornness more specifically, it’s very hard to change their minds about something once they have an opinion, and they often irritate people who are trying to interact with them who have different views.” Ha. Nestadt also describes this type of person as likely to be a perfectionist workaholic with a strong moral code.

Whether this sounds good or bad to you probably depends on how deeply you relate — for me, it is like looking into a beautiful mirror. And it’s that self-appreciation part that really makes the stubbornness so … stubborn, says Nestadt. “These characteristics are things that aren’t easily amenable to change,” he says. “They are who you are, and they’re things people like about themselves, so they don’t actually have a real desire to change the traits. What they want to change are the behaviors or the consequences.”

How do you do that?

Make it a game.

One can avoid situations and people who put one’s stubborn self most at-risk of a bad mood, Nestadt says, but bad moods remain inevitable, and Ferguson says we should accept them as such. “Negative emotions are valuable,” she says. “I personally don’t think we need to be happy all the time, and there’s actually some research suggesting that people who are extremely happy actually experience negative outcomes too.”

But if you are being a humongous bitch for no discernible reason (no offense), and you’re generally predisposed to stubbornness, Nestadt suggests making use of that other corresponding trait: your perfectionism, or your desire to win. “If I was working psychotherapeutically with someone like that, I’d make it into a game, such that it becomes more of an adventure,” he says. For example, Who Can Be the Most Beloved Butterfly in This Loud, Overcrowded Establishment, Even Though She is Very Tired?

Sounds … I won’t say fun, but this sounds like something that might actually work.

A Stubborn Person’s Guide to Improving Your Mood