Navigating An Ocean of Moods

By Jim Selman

Moods are to humans as water is to a fish. They are a medium in which we live and think.


While you and I are always in a mood, we may or may not always be aware of what we are experiencing. Quite often, what is most obvious that we are least aware can influence our future, what is possible, what we do, and whether we’re successful at what we want to accomplish.

When I was younger, I spent years worried about the future. I didn’t have a particularly brilliant track record in school, just a C average. I married young, had a baby before I graduated college, and then got fired from my first job. I felt I’d basically blown it. I lived in a mood that was some combination of shame, regret and fear, tinged with hope a miracle would happen. By sheer stubborn resolve, I pressed through those difficult years. I was mostly aware that I was either afraid, lacking confidence, or locked into a lot of negative self-talk. Eventually my overall mood shifted to a combination of relief, ambition, and gratitude.

It never occurred to me that I was living in an ocean of moods that were influencing and determining how I perceived what was going on in my life. Those perceptions were shaping the possibilities I could see, the choices I made, and what I did. My moods, perceptions, and actions together created a kind of self-fulfilling story. If I had known then what I know now about moods, I might have been able to take charge of who I was and more easily navigate all the circumstances and relationships in my life.

What is a mood?

Moods are a really big deal in that they can determine how we experience our lives and how we relate to our circumstances and everything and everyone else, including ourselves. But what is a mood? Ask experts or go to the dictionary and you’ll discover ideas and theories, definitions and anecdotal descriptions filled with ambiguous terminology such as “emotions”, “attitudes”, and “states of mind.”

Ask a room full of people what they already know about the topic of moods and you might hear comments like these.

Moods happen.” People don’t normally ‘decide’ to be in a particular mood. Moods come and go throughout the day. They are often short-lived and sometimes just disappear when acknowledged.
Moods color experience.” Like the soundtrack in a movie, moods give color and texture, depth and resonance to the quality of our lives.
Some moods are good; some are bad.” Good ones generally expand relationships with other people and circumstances; bad ones limit one or both.
Moods are infectious.” People “catch” them from each other. Someone in a dark mood can bring us down; someone in a good mood can lift our spirits.
Moods are portable.” They go wherever we go and often persist, regardless of our changing surroundings and situation.
Moods are often triggered.” When our ‘buttons’ get pushed, we will typically react to, defend against, argue with, withdraw from or, sometimes, attack whatever appears to have provoked us.
Moods can—or cannot—be controlled.” We can sometimes, but not always, suppress a bad mood so that we are less affected by it. We can sometimes, but not always, prolong a good mood so that its effects last.
It’s obvious when others are in a mood.” Unless someone is a very good actor, we can generally notice their mood in the background, even if they don’t express it in words.
Moods justify motivation.” A piece of music or a motivational speaker who shares a possibility we didn’t see before can energize and inspire us to act. Conversely, we can be demotivated or discouraged by a news story or a frustrating situation.

Conventional wisdom considers moods to be virtually synonymous with feelings. I don’t think they are the same. Many moods don’t necessarily map to feelings. What “feeling” do you associate with a mood of ambition? A mood of resolve? A mood of resignation? Also feelings tend to last for a short while. Moods may prevail much longer.

Moods are the larger context in which feelings may—or may not—occur. They give us meaning or the story for why we are feeling the way we feel. They are at the heart of who we are and a central aspect of being alive.

The Power of Moods

The power of moods, for me, began with the insight that my relationship to a mood is not the same as the mood itself.

Earlier I mentioned the idea of being immersed in an ocean of moods. When I’m caught in the swift-moving current of a strong mood, I can easily stop being aware. I forget that moods are moods. I am captured by the mood and personalize it as “my mood”. I ride its wave. As soon as I realize this, I find myself doing whatever I think I can to hold onto it (if it’s a good mood) or get out of it (if it’s a bad one). What I typically don’t see is that I don’t need to “do” anything. I can simply observe the mood and, in doing so, open the possibility of having a choice in how I relate to it.

I was talking with my daughter, a career woman in her mid-30s, about moods. Apparently, she and her girlfriends talk about moods quite a bit. She described how it was typical for her friends to experience dramatic mood swings during their periods or to not be “in the mood” to go out. Now this is an experience I have never had to endure. Were these moods preventable or just hormonal and unavoidable? Do these women just simply accept whatever mood shows up and allow them to play out however they do? As I listened, it sounded like the women attempt to control their unwanted moods by either suppressing them with medication or by adopting other coping mechanisms.

As my daughter and I continued to talk, we agreed that, while we don’t have a choice about the moods we are experiencing, we always have a choice about how we relate to them. The point of mastering anything is not to control what you are experiencing, but to have choice in how you respond.

What if you could be with negative moods—without resisting them? What if you could be free from upset when your buttons get pushed? What if you could be free from suffering in tough circumstances in which people all around you are struggling? What if you could use your moods to help you be more present, more alive, and more effective at whatever you’re doing?

To realize these possibilities, you would need to be able to distinguish between different moods and observe them in yourself and others. You’d need to develop some skill in riding the currents of moods, no matter how fast or hard they flow, and communicating in a way that allows you to still take action that will have some intentional impact. You’d need to practice cultivating moods that are conducive to achieving your commitments.

Achieving what you want in life in the midst of accelerating disruptions is no easy feat. Each new change calls you to reinvent yourself and your relationships with all the circumstances and people in your life. By developing your powers of observation, your understanding of the phenomenon of mood itself, and your ability to appreciate and work with moods, you take a first step toward meeting that call.