Why do we perform better when we are in a good mood?


Picture by Enrica Falco

It happens to anyone to wake up in the morning with an inexplicable smile on their face. Or, when we are sleepier, we get news that make us happy for the whole day. In these moments, if we have to study or perform a task that requires a good cognitive engagement, we have the feeling of being more ingenious than usual. We feel almost unbeatable, more clear headed and productive. Is there something really happening inside our body that can justify such insight, or we are just suffering from a delusion of grandeur? No delusions, it is really so.

Good mood affects creativity and problem-solving skills. What gives us that extra gear is dopamine, a chemical messenger released by our brain that, among other functions, controls the motor behavior, attention and gratification. Not coincidentally, it is also the main chemical responsible of psychomotor hyper-activation, which results from the use of certain drugs, such as cocaine or amphetamine.

This neurotransmitter and brain circuits that use it (called “dopaminergic”) are particularly active when we are in a good mood. Dopamine is produced by neurons in the midbrain, which send their axons to other areas of the brain by releasing the neurotransmitter. One of these receiving structures is the prefrontal cortex. When we are in a good mood, it receives dopamine to a greater extent and, accordingly, is activated even more.

What does this all mean? Prefrontal cortex is important for several cognitive functions, such as planning and problem-solving. When dopamine release increases and its activation is thus increased, these functions are benefited. Not only that, but a rise in dopamine is also responsible for our cognitive flexibility, i.e. the capacity that allows us to see the situation from other perspectives. In other words, cognitive flexibility is the basis of that type of problem solving called “creative”: when we find a brand new solution, unconventional and yet extremely functional to the achievement of our goal.

At this point it is necessary to make a clarification. For some, “problem-solving” may sound misleading and maybe even a little too much, almost as if the task of solving problems only concerns mathematicians. It’s actually the exact opposite: simply, this expression means finding ways to reach our goal, which could also be solving a riddle heard on TV or find an alternative to avoid being stuck in traffic. In other words, we solve problems from dawn to dusk and we don’t even realize it.

The mechanism described earlier is the dopaminergic theory of positive affect or DTPA, according to which the increase in dopamine associated with good mood is reflected in the increased activity of the prefrontal cortex, which positively affects our creativity and our ability to find innovative solutions to problems, because of its involvement in problem-solving and cognitive flexibility. We are actually more intuitive, more skilled and faster at solving everyday problems.

Of course this theory should not be read as an exaltation of the benefits of drugs or any other psychotropic substance that can increase the release of dopamine: on the contrary, a significant and lasting increase in the levels of this neurotransmitter appears to be related to schizophrenia and the positive symptoms associated with it (e.g., hallucinations and delusions). It was also examined that, in healthy subjects, amphetamine causes the same positive symptoms observed in patients with psychotic disorders.

The merit of the DTPA is in having shown the chemical and biological basis that regulates the relationship between our emotions and problem-solving skills or, in other words, having explained how the dopamine increase experienced along with the good humor affects creativity and the ability to solve more or less ordinary problems.

Now we need to start your day on the right foot and continue as far as possible in the name of positive emotions!

Gloria RossiGloria Rossi

Graduated in Applied Criminology, Investigation, and Security at Bologna University

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