The power of upward spirals
Last weekend, I was having one of those days. I was stuck on a project — really stuck — the kind of stuck where I kept turning the idea over in my mind but couldn’t bring myself to just sit down at the computer and work through it. I felt exhausted, but every time I had a chance to rest, I would lie awake, my mind racing with anxious thoughts. Worries about the Delta variant, its implications for unvaccinated children, and the return of a period of uncertainty felt like on a weight on my chest. The sky outside seemed to match my mood. Low and bleak, it wore a flat wash of gray that opened up in a rain shower whenever I felt intrepid enough to leave the house.
“Ugh, this weather,” I complained to Albert. He sighed in agreement and asked me what I wanted to do that day. “I don’t know,” I responded. “Nothing special.” When he asked me what I wanted to eat for dinner, normally a topic that elicits lots of excited discussion, I replied, “Whatever.”
Left to my own devices, I would’ve spent the day on the sofa bingewatching a Netflix show and taste-testing pints of ice cream. But given that this isn’t a recommended activity for a one year-old, I had to get my act together. We decided that even in the rain, a walk on the beach would be easier than trying to amuse Graham all day in the house. So we ventured out into the drizzle, umbrellas in tow.
The flags on the beach were blue, meaning “Be careful when swimming”. Delighted by the sight of his favorite color, Graham shouted “Bu, bu, bu!” until we obliged by walking in their direction. The tide was out, and a sandbar had formed in the shallows. We took Graham out of the carrier and held his hands as he splashed in the water. He’s not quite walking yet, but when he’s given a hand to hold he’ll stomp along the beach like a tiny man on a mission as long as we’ll let him. The beach was quiet and apart from a few seagulls, we had the run of the place. As the cool tides washed over my bare feet, I felt surprisingly light.
Then I heard myself say it:
“What a glorious day!”
A glorious day? How on earth did this day from gloomy to “glorious” in the span of half an hour?
The answer lies in a phenomenon called emotional spirals.
Our emotions aren’t singular and isolated. Instead, they build on each other, and as they do this, they take on a kind of momentum. When we’re in a downward spiral, like I was on my no good, very bad morning, it feels like a cascade of troubles pouring on our heads. It might start out with a small misunderstanding over an email or an unexpected bill, but as our minds ruminate on what’s happening, we start to fixate on what’s going wrong, and soon we find ourselves in a full-blown bad mood.
Emotions spiral because they unconsciously promote thoughts and behaviors that reinforce our current mental state. Notice how, when I was in a bad mood, my inclination was to lie on the sofa and watch TV, even though it likely would’ve perpetuated my sense of stagnation. Or take the example of the unexpected bill. If the cost makes you feel anxious, your brain might start to catastrophize (“Now I’m going to have to take that money out of my savings, which is going to set me back on my retirement. At this rate, I’ll never retire!”). Your anxiety having been triggered, you’re on heightened alert to the possibility of danger. When your boss sends an email, “Hey, can we meet this afternoon?” instead of seeing that this could mean many different things, you jump to the conclusion that you’re getting fired. This further narrows your attention in on your worries, making it hard to focus on the work you need to do that morning. So by the afternoon, when you discover that your boss simply wanted an update on an upcoming presentation, you’re actually behind and will have to cancel your evening plans so you can work late to catch up. Now your friend is annoyed that you’ve flaked on dinner, and you’re stuck alone at your desk, eating takeout. What started with a small, unanticipated misfortune not only ruined the whole day, but also might have consequences for your relationships and your health.
But the good news is that we can easily stop downward spirals. And even better: we can create upward spirals, where our emotions build momentum toward greater joy and well-being.
A small moment of joy may seem trivial in the midst of a day like the one I just described. But researchers who study positive emotions have found that even a brief burst of positive emotion can disrupt a downward spiral and kickstart an upward one. While negative emotions narrow our focus inward, causing us to ruminate and withdraw, positive emotions do the opposite, broadening our attention, making us more open-minded, friendly, and exploratory. We’re less likely to brood over problems, and more likely to spot silver linings in our rainclouds. Instead of being on the lookout for things that might go wrong, we’re looking for things to go right.
What makes upward spirals particularly powerful is that they set us up for more joy in the future. The flexible thinking that comes in the wake of a positive mood makes us more resourceful and creative, which enriches our days and helps us cope with adverse events. Increased openness to others helps us make friends, strengthening our network of social support. And the curious, exploratory mindset prompts us to get out of our comfort zone, expanding our worldview and opening the door to discovering new sources of joy in the future.
This is exactly what happened to me at the beach. A few minutes of playing in the waves with people I love broke through my deepening spiral and shifted my attention to the good things about my life. I began to think about how lucky I am to live so close to the water, how nice rainy days are because they keep the crowds away, and how excited I am for Graham to start walking in a few weeks. My worries weren’t gone, but they receded in the background, and with the newfound space in my head, I began to get ideas for my piece that I jotted down on my phone. On the drive home, I remembered the chard we had picked at the farm and started feeling inspired to make a salad. Cooking dinner no longer felt like a chore but something to look forward to. My entire Sunday — perhaps even my entire week — had turned around.
Instead of thinking of a moment of joy as too much effort or a pointless waste of time in a hectic day, it would be more accurate to see it as the first link in a chain reaction. It may take some energy to kick it off, but once in motion an upward spiral has its own momentum, sending ever-widening positive ripples throughout our lives. All we need to do is get it started.
So how do we do this? When you notice yourself having one of those days, try one of these tips for breaking out of your funk, and setting an upward spiral into motion.
Change the scenery
When we’re in a downward spiral, our natural tendency is to withdraw. Rather than feeling curious and adventurous, we burrow in at home, pulling the covers up over our heads. There’s nothing wrong with seeking rest or enjoying the comforts of home, but it can make it harder to get out of a funk.
By changing our physical surroundings, we create a sensory signal that something different is happening. This primes us to be on the alert for new circumstances and information. It makes it easier to break out of an existing spiral and be open to the possibility of joy. It also creates opportunities for novel experiences that can’t be had within the walls of your home. Getting outside is particularly conducive to this, even in bad weather, because nature offers so many different and unexpected sensations. But anywhere that looks and feels different can give us the jolt we need to help us shake off a bad mood.
Active beats passive
Negative emotions tend to put us in a passive frame of mind. Why bother getting up off the sofa when everything is terrible? Why bother cooking dinner when we’re not in the mood for anything anyway? It’s almost as if we go into a kind of energy saver mode. Life feels so exhausting that any effort might knock us out completely.
But the strange thing about emotional spirals is that energy isn’t a 1:1 equation. Because joy itself is energizing, it pays back the energy we invest many times over. On the flip side, “conserving” energy by moping around the house actually makes us more lethargic.
It can feel like a bit of a hurdle, but doing something active is more likely to break you out of a downward spiral than doing something passive. This might mean going for a run or a walk, taking a field trip to a local gallery or farmer’s market, baking some muffins or weeding the garden. It can even be something really small, like doing ten jumping jacks, doing a puzzle instead of scrolling on your phone, or playing catch with your kids. It doesn’t have to be big or time-consuming, but it does need to take a little bit of effort.
Accomplish a small task
For me, a classic sign of a downward spiral is avoidance. I feel overwhelmed and indecisive. My to do list looms. Everything on it feels like an impossible ask. I mark even simple emails as unread because it feels too hard to respond in the moment. Of course, this only reinforces my sense of overwhelm and the feeling that I’m incapable of dealing with the basic mechanics of my life.
In these moments, I change my sheets. It’s small, annoying thing, but it has an immediate payoff. My bed is crisp and cozy, and I’ve done something I’m always tempted to avoid. High on the sense of accomplishment, I look at my to do list with optimism, and nearly always find one or two more lingering things to check off.
We all have these small, tedious tasks in our lives, ones that aren’t complicated but are nonetheless annoying. Find one that feels doable, and see what happens after you finish.
Invite a friend along
This one is probably the hardest for me. I enjoy my alone time, and when I’m in a funk, I find it hard to reach out. But research shows that we find more joy in an activity when we do it with someone else than when we do it alone. This is even true of activities like hiking or painting that lend themselves well to solitary enjoyment. Taking a buddy along heightens the joy for everyone involved.
If you can’t find a friend in the moment, or you’re shy about reaching out, the next best thing is to share your moment of joy. Psychologists call this capitalization, and have found that sharing a positive experience with others heightens the joy we feel and also helps to strengthen the relationship. So if you saw a beautiful sunset or a funny dog on your walk, snap a pic and send it to someone you know would share your excitement The response you get will help to boost your upward spiral, and you may even help kick off an upward spiral for someone you love.
Once you’ve gotten an upward spiral going, you can help it along by starting to link together positive emotional experiences, a bit like you’re building a chain. One way to do this is by cultivating anticipation: creating things to look forward to and allowing that excitement to add to your good mood.
Rituals are one way to build anticipation. Having a daily walk in the park or a weekly visit to the local swimming pool, you can visualize and talk about these events as a way of pre-enjoying them. You can also create anticipation just by thinking ahead a little bit. Instead of scrambling for what to cook for dinner at 7pm when you’re standing in front of the stove, deciding in the morning gives you a chance to look forward to that moment all day. Plus, it might give you time to get ahead of food prep, which will make you less frantic and more able to enjoy the process of cooking and eating your meal.
Ultimately, the power of upward spirals is that they amplify small actions, yielding big benefits for our mental health. When times are dark, it can feel like the effort needed to shift our mindset is vast, and the obstacles insurmountable. This keeps us stuck.
Knowing instead that small joys can have a meaningful impact makes it easier to take that first step, trusting that once we get it going, the upward spiral will carry us to joyful new heights.
Image: Danist Soh via Unsplash