Why a good mood may make you more adventurous

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When you’re in a bad mood, the comfort of your home, pajamas and couch is often most appealing. Yet, when you’re feeling a bit sunnier, you might be more likely to venture out and explore the world around you. New research published in the journal Psychological Science sheds light on what is it about feeling grumpy that might make us less likely to try new things, while a good mood brings out our sense of adventure.

Previous research has found that exposure to the familiar—surroundings, objects, faces—is associated with happiness, with researchers postulating that this relationship is as a result of either conditioning through repeated exposure, the notion that “familiarity is intrinsically rewarding because it is connected with easy, efficient and conflict-free processing,” or the idea that we have a tendency toward koinophilia, (the preference for the familiar) because it can help us distinguish good potential mates.

Other theorists have suggested that the value of familiarity is more relative and contextual. That is, a familiar face is more appealing in situations of danger or disorientation—running into a hometown neighbor while wandering around an unknown city might evoke a “warm glow,” while bumping into that same person in line at the deli counter back home is less likely to elicit such positive emotions. In keeping with this, previous study has repeatedly found that newborns are more likely to show signs of neophobia (the fear of new things) in unknown or perceived unsafe environments, compared with safe, comfortable settings. In keeping with that, previous study has also found that bad mood is often a response to perceived danger or discomfort, while good mood indicates that “an environment is benign.” It stands to reason then, the study authors argue, that the causal relationship should go both ways. That is, on the one hand, mood can be a response to environment, but on the other, mood can also change the way we perceive the world around us.

To test that theory, researchers conducted an experiment in which participants viewed a series of random dot patterns. In the first round they viewed several patterns; in the second, they again saw several patterns—including a mixture of those viewed during the first round and new, previously unseen designs. In one experiment, prior to viewing the patterns, study participants—sixteen undergraduates from the University of California, San Diego—were primed for either good or bad mood by being asked to recall a happy or sad personal experience. Then, as they viewed the patterns, their responses were measured using both facial electromyography, which basically tracks facial response in terms of smiles and frowns, and skin conductance response (SCR), which measures “sympathetic arousal.” Participants also reported how they felt.

As the researchers hypothesized, participants who were feeling blue were more likely to respond to and express a preference for familiar patterns, whereas more cheerful participants displayed no preference for familiar over previously unseen patterns. That is, happy participants still appreciated the familiar—in some instances, even more passionately than those in a bad mood—but their mood also boosted positive reactions to new things. As the authors put it, if desire for the familiar can be expressed as a “warm glow of familiarity,” then perhaps good mood casts a similar ray of sunshine on the new, creating a “warm glow of novelty.”