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What kind of mood are you in right now? Feeling good, for no specific reason? Stressed? Hazy and sluggish? Neutral?

And, more to the point, why do you feel that way? Do you have a sunny disposition? Or have you been feeling vaguely anxious all day, some worry that crossed your mind hours ago still reverberating?

Moods are central to everyday life, and their origins are often obscure. Even when the source of a mood seems clear, there are probably more factors at work than we recognize.

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Some moods are born of circumstances in our lives. Some seem to come from the unconscious, or from processes in the body, or from nowhere. A considerable number are what critic Ben Highmore calls “cultural moods”—ways of feeling that are shaped by a historical moment, conditioned by, among many other things, politics, economics, and the news, by the discussions, arguments, and beliefs that are in the air.

“…Mood is made up of individual and collective feelings, organic and inorganic elements, as well as contingent, historical, and slow-changing conditions,” Highmore writes. Mood is, he suggests, “an orchestration of many factors.”

This is not to say that everyone in one time and place is in the same mood, but rather that our individual moods take place within a shared framework. A piece of news from Washington may provoke glee and a feeling of victory for a person of one political orientation, bitterness and resentment from someone else: both reactions take place within a shared moodscape.

Our moodscapes are partly made up of language—of the shared phrases that mark shared concepts, and of the parameters within which agreements and arguments take place—what academics call “discourse.” But a moodscape also involves our bodies: the way we carry ourselves and the similar (and different) ways our senses process what we take in, the landscapes we navigate, and the rhythms of everyday life.

Think of the unfocused, low-level anxiety, felt in the midriff, and frequently prompting avoidance and the search for distractions, that marks the Sunday blahs. Or the eagerness to get out of the office and off to meet your friends on a Friday afternoon, combining jittery energy with difficulty focusing on those last few tasks. Or that bitter, fluttering, just-on-the-verge-of-tears sadness that comes from listening to radio interviews with survivors of the latest school shooting.

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Whatever their source, moods are very much the stuff of everyday consciousness. As Highmore points out, as with weather, there is no such thing as an absence of mood. Even a neutral or “default” mood is a mood—it’s just one that we are unlikely to notice.

Everyday Life in Middletown diarists record moods with great nuance and complexity.

An employee of a non-profit gets to his desk feeling energetic. “I have here coffee & my to-do list. I feel much better about it today than I did yesterday. I was in no mood to deal with anything then. Today seems like it is going to be productive.”

Later, his energy sags and has trouble focusing. “I think I have hit a wall,” he writes. “Little things are getting on my nerves now. Tiny blunders by staff are infuriating….My doctor has told me I have a Vitamin D deficiency, which results in fatigue and inability to concentrate; right now I completely believe that.”

Several diarists record their process of coping with loss. And they consciously try to maintain workable moods. Or they accept and work through feelings of sadness.

A personal care worker learns of a long-time acquaintance’s untimely death. She hides from clients so they won’t see the tears welling in her eyes. Later, she is cheered when her little niece calls four times in four minutes. Her sister apologizes for the phone calls, but the diarist is grateful for the unexpected mood lift: “The timing of her calls could not have been better.”

A diarist who lost a son to drug addiction wakes in the middle of the night to “tears of unknown origin.”

Another whose elderly mother has passed recently feels an uncanny lack at the time of night when he routinely called her; earlier, he had looked sadly at his aging dog stumbling down the steps. “My mom just died, so the dog is not allowed to die for a while,” he writes.

Sometimes the need to regulate mood becomes itself a burden. An overscheduled college student forces herself to be cheerful while leading a meeting at the end of a long day: “…my job to be peppy and composed,” she writes, “hard not to feel drained.”

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In his recent book Cultural Feelings, one of Highmore’s most provocative insights is that a great deal of work—by businesses, workplaces, schools, and other institutions—goes into creating moods. High-end grocery stores play classical music to flatter their shoppers. Human Resource workers develop programs to foster collective good cheer.

Airlines play out elaborate rituals before a flight takes off to establish what Highmore calls a “good-enough mood of low-intensity”—one designed to manage the discomfort of prolonged stillness, enclosure, waiting, and mild anxiety caused by flying. The practiced warmth of the flight crew, the forgettable repetition of the safety warnings, the provision of drinks and snacks, all of this is mood-work.

“The emotional labor that the flight attendants perform is … aimed at decreasing the emotional and affective intensities of passengers,” Highmore writes.

As it happens, air travel provides another diarist with a stark illustration of the connections between mood and the body. And she recounts it with impressive comic timing.

1015-1045: I’m usually pretty good about the idiots at the airport…okay that’s not fair – I’m good dealing with the people who clearly don’t fly very often. I’m friendly and helpful! Not today, man. Today I’m hungry and grouchy. It’s not [that] complicated people! Get in line. Get in another line. Don’t pet the damn drug dog. Get all the shit out of your pockets before you go through the damn scanner. RAGE

1045-1130: BREAKFAST!!!! Delicious, glorious breakfast. I don’t even care that my tacos were a little cold, or that my blood orange mimosa was $9. I can legit feel my irritation melting away, and I’m a nice person again.

Perhaps the cultural mood-work that is most evident diaries is that of gratitude. Gratitude has become a watchword in the worlds of self-help and “happiness studies” and is emphasized by practitioners of positive psychology. People buy and maintain “gratitude journals”; newspapers write about studies showing the health effects of actively practicing gratitude.

This cultural mood-work has been circulating in Muncie.

An executive at a non-profit is grateful that he can afford the fees for daycare for his son (and wishes for a future when quality day care is accessible to all); and he’s grateful to work in a nice building with a lot of committed, professional colleagues. A professor is grateful that he can exercise at lunchtime. A retiree is grateful to have a washing machine and a dryer in her house. Another diarist is grateful that she can talk to her step daughter while she drives, thanks to a hands-free calling device. One diarist, a retiree, is even grateful to Everyday Life in Middletown for allowing him to “ share our story.”

If gratitude is a cultural mood in Highmore’s sense—a mood that people in various sectors are deliberately creating—the result is that working on gratitude is a strategy that is available to people as they navigate their days. Such deliberate mood-work—on the part of the culture and on the part of individuals—is one of the many ways that moods function in everyday life.

–Patrick Collier

Editor’s Note: We will be writing much more about mood in future blog posts. We are also interested in your understanding, experience, and thoughts about mood. If you would like to share your thoughts about mood on our blog,  please contact Patrick Collier at