When we’re in the middle of a bad mood that has persisted for a couple of days, it’s sometimes hard to snap out of it and to feel better. Especially when it seems to have no cause, the result may be confusion and fear that the mood will continue indefinitely – “I don’t know why I feel this way – everything seems to be fine!” Or worse, self-punishment – “I have no reason to feel this way. Something must really be wrong with me to feel like this when lots of people are less fortunate!”
Sometimes, when we’re in that kind of state, the feelings extend as far as our sense of personal effectiveness. We may think to ourselves, when considering taking action of one kind or another – “What’s that point in doing X? It won’t make me feel better.” In these cases, it’s better to pay less attention to the criticizing, negative part of the brain (after all, it’s certainly not helping us feel any better!) and have faith that the following time-tested mood boosters will help us out eventually. Generally speaking, taking action and doing something – no matter how imperfect – is better than doing nothing.
When we feel unhappy, we often want to be left alone. However, being alone often encourages needless contemplation and “thinking things over”, which isn’t the best way to recover from a low mood. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to force ourselves to interact with lots of people if we really don’t feel like it (introverts take note!). Even going to a public place such as a coffee shop, bookstore, library or park can provide the uplifting experience of being among other people. Spending time with friends is another great way to improve our mood, as long as we allow them to raise us up, instead of bringing them down by taking advantage of the opportunity to complain or vent. In either case, however, being among people removes the feeling of isolation. It creates a feeling of common ground with others, which is a great way to move out of a slump.
Focus on gratitude
There’s always something to be thankful for. When we’re in the middle of a low point, it will probably be harder than usual to think about reasons to feel gratitude. In fact, we’re more likely to go in the opposite direction – focusing on things going wrong, frustration, and reasons to feel ungrateful.
Being systematic about the process of gratitude, even if it means doing an “artificial” exercise like making a list of things that we’re thankful for, can help turn around a persistent negative mood. Artificial or not, it’s a lot harder to continue feeling bad when we have just written down a list of the ten best things in our life!
Doing something physical can boost our moods naturally, through the release of endorphins. This creates a feeling of relaxation and well-being that can counteract a persistent low mood. For greater benefit, choosing activities like weight lifting, yoga, or team sports, that demand focused attention and constantly change, can also break the cycle of counterproductive thoughts. More repetitive activities like elliptical or treadmill workouts won’t work as well as mental distractions, although the physical benefits of exercise would still remain.
Meditation has been demonstrated to generate an experience of greater happiness in its practitioners over time. Even in the midst of a bad mood, meditation can calm breathing, help the meditator be less attached to their thoughts, and create a more balanced perspective on sources of stress.
Since meditation is such a quiet, introspective activity, it’s extremely important to ensure that our meditation session not turn into a thinking and complaining session. After all, 20 or 30 minutes of focusing on the reasons why we’re feeling low will potentially make us feel even worse. The potential upside is large, though – the same length of time spent concentrating on the breath, a mantra, or other focal point can definitely upgrade our mood.
Building forward momentum in some kind of productive activity is a great way to boost our moods. After all, it’s harder to feel bad about things when we’re making progress on one of our goals. But what if we don’t feel like doing anything precisely because we’re in a slump?
Neil Fiore suggests in his book The Now Habit that we use the reminder – I choose to start on one small, imperfect step, knowing that I have plenty of time to play. This “mantra” addresses many of the different concerns that create the habit of procrastination.
Using the language “I choose to” is deliberate. We may not “want” to do the task or “look forward” to it, but we can set these concerns aside for a few minutes and at least get started. It also avoids the common but misguided phrase “I have to”, with all of its tendency to generate resistance (“I have to? Who says?“).
Deciding to “start on one small, imperfect step” is equally important. We’re not promising something unlikely – working for three hours with perfect concentration, or completing a huge task in record time. We are just choosing to start on a small imperfect step. Perfection, refinement and completion comes later – just getting started is enough for now.
The final part of the sentence “knowing that I have plenty of time to play” is also important. This reminds us that we aren’t bound to keep working if things don’t go well. We can take a break, relax for a bit, and return to start again.
As long as we’re kind to ourselves about it, getting started making progress on one of our goals is a great way to help us move out of a low point and improve our mood.
Remember, this will pass
Although it may not feel that way from the middle of a low point, everything arises and passes away in time. This is certainly true of moods, both good and bad. The aversion that we have toward negative feelings and emotions is just the flip-side of the craving and attachment we have toward positive feelings and emotions. We want the one to end as soon as possible and the other to last longer. As a result, we tend to feel the transience more for positive feelings, and less for negative feelings. It’s very important for us to remind ourselves of this reality when a feeling of negativity or sadness is present.
…and remember to make it a habit!
Even if our actions don’t make us feel better, it’s important to remember the final point – regardless of what else happens, the mood will eventually pass and change into something else.
The long-term solution is to create habits rather than to be at the mercy of feelings. The more we practice the six habits described above, the more resources we will have at our disposal to create positive moods and diminish negative ones. Even so, our feelings are somewhat like the weather. We can build the most comfortable house in the world, but that just keeps us more comfortable during bad weather – it doesn’t control the weather itself.
So it is with these habits – even with regular practice, no habit can guarantee that we won’t fall into a negative mood now and then. Fortunately, the habits do give us some powerful tools to leave negativity behind much more quickly.
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