Lynn Johnson, Ph.D.,

How do we cheer ourselves when our spirits are low? Traditionally, cognitive therapists have tried to change the content of thinking. Clients are taught to challenge over-generalization and exclusion patterns that are thought to cause unhappiness. Now we get a new and refreshing view. Emily Pronin and Elana Jacobs of Princton University have shown that they can influence mood simply by speeding up the rate of thinking.

This is breakthrough. Can we change what we feel simply by changing the speed that we think or act? Pronin’s answer is clearly “yes.” Does it matter what the content is? Not as much as you would suspect, says Pronin. She asked people to read material either faster or slower than usual. Those who read faster felt energized and excited; those who read slowly felt lethargic and slowed.

In another study, Pronin asked students to jot down thoughts about how to earn tuition during the summer. One group was asked to write down as many ideas as they could. The second group was asked to write down the very best ideas. With speedy writing, the first group found their moods lifting significantly. The second group were writing much more slowly, and their mood was lower, energy lower, and satisfaction lower. Did the fast thinkers have better ideas? Not necessarily. It was simply the speed.

I have encouraged clients who are discouraged or depressed to move more quickly and speak more quickly. They say their mood is raised.

I often bicycle to work. If I am starting up in the spring after not biking for months, it takes me about 45 minutes to get to work. If I ride two or three times a week, I get stronger, and start to ride the route more quickly.

So I do make progress. But this is especially the case if I do some interval training on at least one ride a week. Interval training means that for one block, I ride quite a bit faster than I am comfortable. I really push. I would suppose I am at about 80% of my maximum. Then I ride normally and recover from the effort. Then I repeat the one-block interval. Doing this six or eight times in a 45 minute ride will result in my average speed coming up rather nicely. Perhaps that is a good analogy for this mood elevation exercise. We act as if, and soon, we feel natural at that higher level of energy. It feels more and more normal.

Another personal example, if you would permit me. Once a month I do some teaching. The format is a full day workshop, so I have to present a good deal of material. I am well prepared, but carrying a class the whole day can be tiring. I strategy I have adopted is that I purposely speak just a bit faster than usual. To my delight, I find that my energy level is higher, and I am able to think of more jokes. They just seem to spring to mind.

Since I believe strongly that occasional jokes help people to retain the material better, the way my mind is able to access jokes that I haven’t thought of for a long time is very satisfying to me. After seeing the “speed up = more optimistic and happy” research, I realized what was going on. I had stumbled onto the same principle. A choice to speak and move more quickly reliably makes the teaching day go much better for me. If you have a similar challenge, it may help you too.

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