Mood Homeostasis and Depression

MoodSurfing advocates identifying strategies for managing moods without medications, not because we think medications are bad, but because they do have potential adverse effects. We think that some of these strategies are very helpful, but the psychiatric establishment has not always agreed. A recent study1 provides evidence that choosing activities to stabilize mood can have a big impact on mental health.  This large, case-controlled study looked at two separate populations of tens of thousands of respondents and the findings suggest that the impact of these choices may be greater than the effects usually seen of mood stabilizers or anti-depressants in medication studies.

Can I manage my moods without medication?

The authors of this paper note that recent research has shown that in the general population there is a high correlation between a person’s mood and the activities that that person chooses to engage in. When in a depressed mood people are much more likely to do things that can improve their mood. By contrast, when in a good mood, people are more likely to do necessary, but difficult, tasks that may lower their mood.

In other words, most people inherently tend to follow MoodSurfing principles.

However, people who have experienced chronic depressions are less likely to make these kind of choices (see our discussion of how chronic depression can lead to a sense of “learned helplessness”).

This study examined the impact of mood stabilizing behaviors in two large populations. They looked for two types of behavior:

Mood homeostasis – meaning the tendency to stabilize one’s mood by engaging in mood-stabilizing activities, for example exercising when mood is low and saving less-rewarding activities, such as housework, for periods when mood is higher.

Impaired mood homeostasis – or the failure to engage in mood boosting activities when feeling “low” or to use high-mood times as an opportunity to choose to complete unwanted work.

One set of data was gathered when people downloaded an app on their smartphone (a relatively high-income group of people) and answered questions about what they were doing and how they felt throughout the day. In this set of data, it was possible to see how behavior affected future moods.

To see if this finding also occurred in a less affluent group of people, the researchers examined data from the World Health Organization Study on Global Aging and Adult Health, which consisted of questionnaires given to typical people living in China, Ghana, India, Mexico, Russia, and South Africa. In this data set people were asked what their current mood was, whether they had ever been depressed, and what activities they would be most likely to choose.

Both sets of data showed that people with a history of past depression were less likely to change what they did in a way that would boost their mood when they felt down.

The researchers were then able to show that if you were a person with a history of depression and you made mood-stabilizing choices you were much less likely to have another episode of depression. The beneficial effect of mood stabilizing behavior choices was quite large.

“In dynamic simulations, lower mood regulating behaviors led to more depressive episodes (11.8% vs 3.8% yearly risk) and episodes that lasted longer (4.19 vs 2.90 weeks).”

The authors of the study called for more research to be done and specifically noted that enhancing mood stabilizing choices seemed to be a very promising way of helping people with depression.

MoodSurfing has long advocated mood-regulating activities and lifestyle changes, such as exercise, early morning light, balanced sleep patterns, and daily mood charting.  We appreciate our clients’ and patients’ efforts in these areas, and have seen real, positive results through behavior change.  We welcome this research from JAMA Psychiatry, and look forward to more useful results from this trend.

– Nancy and Peter


  1. Taquet, M. et al. Mood Homeostasis, Low Mood, and History of Depression in 2 Large Population Samples. JAMA Psychiatry. Published online April 22, 2020.