This column will change your life: Sudden exposure | Oliver Burkeman

The British Psychological Society recently asked some of the world's leading psychologists a rather personal question: having spent so much time trying to understand people, what was the one nagging thing they still didn't understand about themselves? One respondent was Norbert Schwarz, whose many contributions to the field include the finding that gloomy weather can make your whole life look bad. The incidental feeling that it induces colours your entire outlook, at least until you become aware that this is what's happening, whereupon the effect vanishes. "You'd think I'd learned that lesson, and now know how to deal with gloomy skies," Schwarz told the BPS ruefully. "I don't. They still get me... Why does insight into how such influences work not help us notice them when they occur?"

We can surely all empathise. I think of myself as generally happy, but every so often I'm struck by a fleeting mood of unhappiness or anxiety that quickly escalates. On a really bad day, I may spend hours stuck in angst-ridden maunderings, wondering if I need to make major changes in my life. It's usually then that I realise I've forgotten to eat lunch. One tuna sandwich later, the mood is gone. And yet, "Am I hungry?" is never my first response to feeling bad: my brain, apparently, would prefer to distress itself with reflections on the ultimate meaninglessness of human existence than to direct my body to a nearby branch of Pret A Manger.

There are two frustrating aspects to this. The first, as Schwarz points out, is the forgetting: knowing there's a simple fix doesn't mean you'll remember it when you need to. The other is the extraordinary power of these transient states: though in truth they might signify nothing more than moderate hunger, or the fact that it's overcast, they condition how you feel about everything. In a study entitled After The Movies, some crafty Australian researchers grilled people leaving the cinema about their views on politics and morality; they discovered that those leaving happy films were optimistic and lenient, while those leaving aggressive or sad ones were far more pessimistic and strict. (They tried to control for the fact that different kinds of people might choose different kinds of movies in the first place.) Dutch psychologists recently found that when people are handed a questionnaire on a clipboard, they'll take the task more seriously – giving longer and weightier answers – when the clipboard is physically heavier. Alcoholics Anonymous, meanwhile, urges its adherents to memorise the acronym "halt", for "never too hungry, never too angry, never too lonely, never too tired", as a caution against the minor, everyday factors that can lead to dark moods, and thence to full-blown relapse.

"Life is a train of moods like a string of beads," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, "and as we pass through them they prove to be many coloured lenses, which paint the world their own hue, and each shows us only what lies in its own focus." The implications of all this, if you think too hard about it, grow dizzying: how many wars have been started, rather than averted at the last minute, because someone was underslept? How many marriage proposals accepted because it was sunny, or because the view from the observation deck was so dramatic? How many momentous decisions taken, how many life-courses altered, for want of a tuna sandwich?

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