Shift Your Mood, Literally One Step at a Time

Which comes first? A smile or feeling happy? A hop in your step or feeling lighthearted? Unlike the long-debated “chicken and egg” question, the answer is not based on speculation. It’s based on research. 

It seems only natural to think that you smile because you are happy.

But since the late 1980s, studies began suggesting that you can change your emotional state by choosing to allow the corners of your mouth to curve upward into a smile. That the emotions can also follow the action.

Even though I knew about this research on smiling, I hadn’t applied it to other activities in my daily life. Like walking. Yes, walking.

I walk every day, even if that’s just around my house. It seems logical that you walk with more bounce when you feel good. But have you considered taking a more buoyant stride in order to feel good?

I’m here to report that a research group in Canada actually has!

How you walk can shift your mood

A 2014 study by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research found that while your mood can affect how you walk, how you walk can also affect your mood. Imagine watching sadness slip away as you walk the dog. Or shifting mild depression on your way down the driveway to check the mail, one step at a time.

To me, this is exciting news. It means everyday actions can become tools for more emotional freedom.

All it requires is the willingness to let go of the common belief that feeling good comes first. Flipping this logic on its head, you can simply decide to walk differently rather than waiting for your mood to shift first.

The Canadian Institute article doesn’t talk about skipping, but my guess is that’s a quick way to feel better. I love skipping when I feel lighthearted. But the next time I’m heavyhearted, I’m going to skip anyway and see what happens.

According to the research, adding more movement to your arms and swinging them gently while walking can make a difference. Or not slouching your shoulders. Just intentionally stand up straighter, or perhaps walk with just a little bit more pep. The point is to do this even when you don’t feel in the mood.

Find a new stride and get unstuck

My spiritual teacher often talks about this as well – to choose to be happy rather than waiting for something to be happy about. We think we need to wait. But it’s the other way around.

The idea of being intentional in order to bring more peace and joy into your life is exactly what I was talking about in my recent video interview, “Self-Care Practices for Life Beyond Loss.” If I had read the study about walking before then, I certainly would have included it in my suggestions!

I prefer feeling good. Most of us do. And I love feeling empowered. When I remember that I can take simple steps to shift my emotions, I feel less like a victim and more like an active creator of my inner experience. Of course, sadness and grief are not “bad” and I don’t recommend glossing over these feelings. But I do recommend finding ways to get unstuck when you are finding it challenging to shift your emotions.

Deciding to smile or walk with more lightness or confidence in your gait are gifts you can give yourself any time, any where. Which comes first? The beauty is it’s not an either/or question. Happiness follows our behavior as much as our behavior follows happiness.

So the next time you’re feeling down, walk as if you’re in a better mood. You can actively help break the cycle of sadness, literally step by step.

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Jennifer Mathews, M.A., is a writer, spiritual cheerleader, and change maker. She currently calls both Bristol, Vermont and Mount Shasta, California home (when she's not traveling elsewhere, that is).

Based on her own exploration of death, grief, joy and optimism, Jen offers life-affirming perspectives and practical tools to support others on their journeys. In her personal and unconventional TEDx Talk, “Death is Inevitable – Grief is Not,” she invites us to break free from the limitations and language of a grieving process and change the way we think about and respond to the death of those we love.

Jen is a founding member and organizer of the Ashland Death Cafe and the Living/Dying Alliance of Southern Oregon. As part of the Community Outreach team of the award-winning film Death Makes Life Possible, she has facilitated conversations on death, dying, and the afterlife in the US, the UK and Ireland.

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11 thoughts on “Shift Your Mood, Literally One Step at a Time

  1. Such a poignant reminder, thank you Jennifer. I read this just before I am about to walk out the door to go for my mandatory ‘hike’. To stay fit.

    Instead I am now choosing to leave my house with a smile while giving myself the next 30 minutes to pay attention to how I walk and to allow joy to fill that space I previously had occupied by obligation. Merci!

    • I love the shift from obligation to joy! That will serve me well too. Thanks for framing it that way. Here’s to acting with an intention of inner joy rather than mandatory duty. Whew! I feel better already ; )

  2. When I first read about “putting a smile on your face” even though feeling depressed or upset, I thought it sounded like an artificial and forced thing to do. Not being honest. But I tried it, and was amazed at how quickly my mood shifted. I was immediately lifted up and onto a higher level of consciousness. Thank you, Jen, for this simple but effective teaching.

    • I so appreciate you sharing that! I felt the same way about smiling and laughing for no reason (especially when I first started doing laughter yoga). And as you say, it’s quite simple. Just a willingness, really. I’m so glad you tried it and that it worked for you. Yay!!

    • Thanks, Jenn! Let me know if you can tell the difference when you “put more glide in your stride” as my dad said to me the other day ; )

  3. When I saw your post come in, I was feeling sluggish and a bit down. While reading, I imagined myself doing these things, skipping and walking light-heartedly. And guess what? I am already feeling much better.

    Thank you for this gift, Jen!

    • I’m so grateful for your comment, Elizabeth. You offer a great reminder that we can also IMAGINE ourselves skipping, smiling, laughing . . . and that the imagining IS a practice in and of itself. Imagination can be so powerful and effective in this way.

      You’ve inspired me to look up the studies on athletes actively imagining themselves doing strength and stamina exercises, and how the results suggested actual muscle tone improving. I’m curious to see what’s out there in terms of emotional toning too!

      Thanks again,