Actions Control Our Thoughts, Not the Other Way Around

Improving our mood and energy levels by focusing on the inputs

We like to think we’re in control. If we’re feeling anxious, or sad, or angry, we just need to will ourselves out of it, don’t you think? We need to suck it up and stop feeling sorry for ourselves, right?

Not so fast. The reality is that in most cases the thoughts, emotions and feelings that we experience are not something that we can willfully control. Rather, they are manifestations of the chemical activity that is taking place in our bodies. 

This concept is most acutely observed in babies. As a parent of a 3-month old, it is incredibly obvious to me that my young son’s moods are determined by two things: sleep and food. If he is well-rested and full, he’s one happy dude. If he’s not, good luck. 

I wrote a chapter about this concept in my recent book Say Good Morning, Like a Human, where I noted that despite preferring to view ourselves as much more sophisticated than infant children, in reality, our moods are subject to the exact same influences: Have we eaten? Have we slept? And I’ll add one more: Have we exercised? How well we’ve done these three things will directly drive the thoughts, feelings and emotions that we experience afterward. We can think of these as lagging indicators of the diet, sleep and exercise habits that we’re putting in motion. 

I see this in my own life every day. The first three months of a baby’s life are stressful and tiring for new parents. There have been countless mornings where I’ve woken up these last several months feeling like I’ve gotten nowhere near enough sleep. “How on Earth am I going to be productive at work? As a dad? As a husband?” I’ve thought. 

I’ve tried two different routes for dealing with this: 1. Stay in bed a bit longer, even if I’m unable to go back to sleep; or 2. Get out of bed and exercise. 

The results have been astounding. Even if I’ve got very little sleep, say 3 or 4 hours, but still manage to get up and get a workout in—for me, it could be 20-min Peloton ride, a 25-min weight-lifting session, or maybe even some yoga—my mood and alertness improve dramatically. It’s like a shot of high-octane coffee straight to the bloodstream (which, incidentally can also help). Interestingly, the endorphins from the workout seem to reset my system so that I feel like I’m in a good mood and able to operate at high levels for the rest of the day. 

On the other hand, when I’ve chosen the ‘stay in bed longer’ option, the opposite has occurred. I never quite snap out of it. I’m sluggish all day. Grumpier with my kids and just kind of lumbering through my day. 

Now, of course, there’s a lot of nuance to this. The type of exercise matters. Anecdotally, I’ve found that cardio exercises—basically something that makes me sweat—are the most effective at hitting the “mood & energy reset” button. And when it comes to diet, of course we need to be eating the right foods. If we don’t, we risk all sorts of negative consequences like unintentionally making ourselves sluggish, and/or spiking our insulin levels. This can have the opposite effect of what we’re trying to achieve—which is feeling happy, energetic and able to perform at a high level in every part of our lives. 

A lot of these topics—exercise, diet, sleep—I’ll plan to explore more in the months ahead here and share what’s working for me and what I’m struggling with. But for today, I’d just remind you that if you’re feeling down or in a bad mood, or just kind of in a funk, the reality is that you’re very unlikely to ‘think’ your way out out if it. Unfortunately, we’re really not as sophisticated as we think in this regard. Rather, to a very real extent, we are controlled by the chemicals that are flowing through our brains and our bodies. 

The good news is that we do have some control of these. We can move. We can eat (good foods). And we can sleep (some more than others…). 

If you focus on controlling these inputs, I think you might find that improvements in your mood will be a happy consequence.