I recently read Finding Your North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live by Martha Beck. I loved it; it was smart, funny, and full of good advice. While this book led to several deep insights, today I’m sharing one that is probably the most superficial, yet easiest to implement. Such is life. (Side note to my bibliophile friends: Do you use BookBub? If you use an e-reader, it’s a fabulous way to discover new and interesting books. And they’re all free or discounted!)
Anyway, at one point in Finding Your North Star, the reader is instructed to visualize him or herself five or ten years in the future. After a few seconds spent ten years in the future, I snapped my eyes open in horror after realizing how old my family and I will be then. Nope, I won’t be looking that far ahead. I rewound my mental image to five years in the future.
The book suggested imagining a scene with as much detail as possible. Where are you? What are you doing? What are you wearing? What is around you? Who are you with? And so on. A funny thing I noticed about my mental image was that I was wearing all white. My current self almost never wears white. I’m pale-skinned and I don’t think think white is particularly flattering on me. When I KonMari-ed my closet a couple years ago, I ended up with a lot of dark neutrals (mostly black and brown) and blue attire. Other than one pair of white jeans, nothing I owned was white.
So, in my fantasy, why was future me wearing white? Was I tuning in to the wrong fantasy? Was I trying to project some idealized version of myself, cloaked in an angelic haze? And how does future me manage to keep her/my clothes clean and free from dirt and spills?
As silly as it sounds, the white clothing idea stuck with me. A few weeks ago I bought myself a white cardigan and have been noticing other white items in the shops that suddenly look more appealing. They seem fresh and carefree.
This begs the question: Does what we wear impact the way we feel? I think it does. The other day, I had a migraine and felt awful. After a few hours in a fetal position, the pain started to subside and I forced myself to take a shower and put on clean clothes. And you know what? Just doing that made me feel a little better. It’s not as if I changed into a fancy dress and heels. But, it was clean and, you know, actual clothing, as opposed to my pajama bottom “sick clothes.”
Research backs up the idea that what we wear impacts the way we feel. As it turns out, this works in both directions. What you wear impacts the way you feel AND the way you feel impacts what you choose to wear. So, wearing an outfit you like can make you feel good. You’re also more likely to choose to wear an outfit that makes you feel good when you’re already feeling good. Conversely, when you’re feeling down, you’re more likely to choose something less confidence-inducing or attractive and so you continue to feel down. Our clothing choices and feelings become intertwined and end up reinforcing each other. It’s self-perpetuating.
There’s a name for this: “enclothed cognition.” According to researchers in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, enclothed cognition “involves the co-occurrence of two independent factors—the symbolic meaning of the clothes and the physical experience of wearing them.” We tend to have symbolic associations with certain items of clothing, so we feel and behave differently while wearing them. Just as the old saying advises us to “dress for the job you want,” you can also dress for the way you want to feel.
To be clear, I don’t believe there as such a thing as “the right clothes.” I believe in right-for-you clothes. From my point of view, this has nothing to do with the designer or price. What makes you feel good? Maybe it’s a certain color you love, or something that highlights a part of your body that you feel good about. Some people feel good with certain textures or fabrics against their skin, such as silk or cashmere. Or maybe you have a positive association with a certain item of clothing because it reminds you of a good experience. Wear what makes you happy and puts an extra spring in your step. These preferences can change over time, just as we change over time. What sparks joy for you today may not spark joy for you a year from now, and that’s okay.
I know some people hate the idea that what we wear matters. They find it shallow and superficial and believe it discounts an individual’s inner substance. Personally, I find the idea empowering. Of course, a person’s character is more important than what he or she is wearing. But what if we can improve the way we feel and break a negative cycle by simply changing our clothes? I think that’s pretty great. What a fun and easy way to give our inner selves a little boost through a simple outer change.
On a flight the other day, I listened to a Tim Ferris interview with writer A.J. Jacobs. A.J. Jacobs is a “self-experimenter extraordinaire” who is constantly trying out different ideas for his books. During the interview, he mentioned that one of his favorite “experiments” involved wearing all white. He was surprised by how it made him feel lighter and happier. “You can’t be in a bad mood when you’re dressed like you’re about to play the semi-finals at Wimbledon.”
Maybe this association of white with levity and happiness was the reason it appeared in my fantasy of my future self. More than anything else, I want my future self to be someone who is relentlessly happy, regardless of what else is happening. And so, this symbolism sneaked into my subconscious and then into my closet.
And so, I offer this as a happiness hack: Try wearing more of what makes you feel good. Maybe that’s white, maybe not. Maybe you’re more of a purple or a scarf type. See if it makes a difference in how you feel.