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The Difference Between Emotions and Moods


Many clients complain about being happy or fine for a while, then losing that feeling. Although some of these shifts are due to depressive or anxiety disorders, others are simply the nature of emotions and misthinking we should feel “good” all the time without experiencing the pain of living on this earth. If you’re wondering what is reasonable to expect from emotions and moods—or what the difference is between the two—read on.

Without turning to the dictionary, I would describe an emotion as fleeting, lasting for 90 seconds or so, if I recall correctly. Emotions evolved over the millennia to call attention to themselves in order to prompt us to do something. Occurring in response to the environment, affective memories are stored in our brains to remind us of how best to survive. Moods, on the other hand, last longer. We can be on a high or in a funk lasting for days or longer. Everything can be hunky dory or viewed through a glass darkly. 

There are events that generate quick highs: welcome surprises, unexpected pleasures, the kindness of strangers, dreams coming true, falling in love, etc. There are also events that trigger lows: unwelcome surprises, uncomfortable emotions, dreams falling apart, being rejected or abandoned, major losses, and blind-siding disappointments. These emotions might be intense at first, then gradually taper off and disappear.

When they don’t, we call them moods, as in “I was in a good/bad mood all week.” Moods can be due to genetics, an imbalance of neurotransmitters or hormones, physical problems, irrational beliefs, or trauma and abuse. They can also be caused by not facing uncomfortable emotions and working through them so that we’re left with shame or guilt or keep getting revisited by self-disappointment. 

We cannot expect to feel upbeat all the time. Many people are raised to believe they should always feel fine and, therefore, shoo away uncomfortable feelings because they’re painful or unpleasant to deal with and they believe they shouldn’t have them. Unfortunately, humans aren’t made to feel fine all the time. If that were the case, we wouldn’t live very long. Alternately, we aren’t mean to be brought to our knees by every little thing that doesn’t go our way either. We are resilient, adaptive, and hopeful and can learn to view life’s rough spots simply as snapshots in time.

The best advice I can give on emotions and moods is to feel all of them, decide whether they stem from the present or a stored memory, know they will pass, be curious rather than judgmental about them, and recognize that you have the power to lift your moods, even the tiniest bit, to make unhappy ones more bearable.




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