For people who are more emotionally reactive, being in a bad mood may actually work in their favor by fueling the thinking skills required to accomplish daily tasks, according to a new study at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

Emotional reactivity refers to the sensitivity, intensity and duration of our emotional responses associated with our moods.

The ability to accomplish daily tasks is often influenced by one’s current mood. For the new study, the researchers wanted to know whether a person’s overall emotional reactivity can influence how one’s mood is able to drive the kinds of thinking skills needed to navigate the demands and stresses of day-to-day life.

The findings show that in high-reactive individuals — those who have rapid, intense, and enduring emotional responses — a bad mood was associated with a better performance on executive function tasks. Executive functioning involves one’s ability to focus attention, manage time and prioritize tasks. For these high-reactive individuals, being in a good mood had a less productive outcome in some cases.

Low-reactive individuals showed the opposite effect, with a bad mood being associated with worse executive functioning.

“Our results show that there are some people for whom a bad mood may actually hone the kind of thinking skills that are important for everyday life,” said study leader Dr. Tara McAuley, a psychology professor at the University of Waterloo.

McAuley conducted the study with Martyn S. Gabel, a Ph.D. candidate.

This pattern of results supports the view that a bad mood may help with some executive skills, but only for those who are more emotionally reactive.

“People shouldn’t interpret the results as saying it’s fine to fly off the handle or overreact, or to be grouchy,” said McAuley. “We know that emotional reactivity differs from person to person starting at a very early age and that these individual differences have implications for mental health later in development.”

More research is needed to explain the association, but some studies suggest that high-reactive people are simply more used  to experiencing negative emotions. As such, bad moods may be less distracting for them compared with lower-reactive people.

The study involved 95 participants, each of whom completed nine distinct tasks and questionnaires that measured the interplay of mood, emotional reactivity and various working memory and analytic challenges.

Source: University of Waterloo