When you’re excited or receive good news, you’re probably walking with a spring in your step, while when you’re upset you’re more likely to drag your feet and gaze at the floor. Research backs this up — people walk differently when they’re happy or depressed. What’s more, mimicking the walking style of elated or unhappy people may also influence your mood for better or for worse, according to recent research.
The study, published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, found when people were prompted to walk in a stereotypical happy manner, with a level-headed position, shoulders back and arms swinging, they experienced fewer negative psychological effects than people who were prompted to walk in a stereotypical depressed style, with their heads looking downward, shoulders slumped forward, with less arm movement.
“We avoided using the word ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ in the walking instructions so that this did not affect the results,” says study author Elizabeth Broadbent, PhD, professor of health psychology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.
Within Broadbent’s study, people who walked with slumped posture experienced more sluggishness, fewer feelings of power and more feelings of negativity when they had to complete a stressful task, compared to people who walked in an upright position: Those individuals experienced less sluggishness, more feelings of power and fewer negative feelings in response to the same stressful task.
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Another study found that when people were asked to review a list of 20 positive words and 20 negative words and then were prompted to walk in an upbeat or depressed style, the people who walked in a more depressed manner remembered more negative words than the people who walked in the more upbeat manner. Essentially, the message that was communicated through body language was similar to the type of words that were more easily recalled by the walkers.
“Depressed gait is characterized by a slumped posture, reduced vertical up-and-down movements of the upper body, reduced arm swing and more pronounced lateral body sway,” says study author Johannes Michalak, PhD, professor of psychology and psychotherapy at the University of Witten/Herdecke in Germany. “Happy gait is characterized by increased walking speed, stronger up-and-down movements of the upper body – more bouncing, more pronounced arm swings, reduced lateral swaying movements of the upper body and a more upright posture.”
Previous research has also shown that people who walk with a depressed posture walk more slowly than those who walk with an upbeat spring in their step, but in Michalak’s study, everyone was asked to maintain the same walking speed. Even when people with a depressed gait walked at the same speed as people with a happier walking style, they recalled more negative words.
Some research has shown that mimicking a particular emotion may help people feel what they are copying. For example, a recent study in the journal Psychological Bulletin found that when people smile, they feel somewhat happier, and when they frown, they feel somewhat sadder. Other research has shown that when people do mood-boosting activities (like meditating on optimistic or grateful thoughts), they feel happier. So tailoring your walking style to mimic a happier gait when you’re feeling upset may similarly help lift your spirits.
“More research is needed,” says Michalak, “but everyone is free to try out the effects of a happy walking pattern on their mood.” It’s a risk-free way to improve the state of your mind, with no harmful side effects. If you’re feeling sad or stressed, “try going for a walk and keeping your head in a level position rather than pointed down, with your shoulders back and arms swinging,” says Broadbent.