This Wednesday: Thirteen tips for dealing with a really lousy day.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 13 tips for dealing with a really lousy day.

We all have really lousy days from time to time. A bad work or school evaluation, a potential crush who turns out not to be interested, a fight with your mother-in-law, a worrisome call from a doctor…lousy days take many forms.

Here are some tips for getting through it:

1. Resist the urge to “treat” yourself. Often, the things we choose as “treats” aren’t good for us. The pleasure lasts a minute, but then feelings of guilt, loss of control, and other negative consequences just deepen the lousiness of the day. So when you find yourself thinking, “I’ll feel better after I have a few beers…a pint of ice cream…a cigarette…a new pair of jeans,” ask yourself – will it REALLY make you feel better? It might make you feel worse.

2. Do something nice for someone else. “Do good, feel good” – this really works. A friend going through a horrible period told me that she was practically addicted to doing good deeds; that was the only thing that made her feel better. However, don’t put too much pressure on yourself now. Don’t start planning an elaborate surprise party; email some digital photos to the grandparents.

3. Distract yourself. When the Big Girl was born, she had to be in Neonatal Intensive Care for a week. I spent every hour at the hospital, until the Big Man dragged me away to go to an afternoon movie. I didn’t want to go, but afterwards, I realized that I was much better able to cope with the situation after having had a bit of relief. Watching a funny movie or TV show is a great way to take a break. It might even be a good idea to have an emergency stash ready by the TV, for bad times.

4. Seek inner peace through outer order. Soothe yourself by tackling a messy closet, an untidy desk, or crowded countertops. The sense of tangible progress, control, and orderliness will lighten your mood. This always works for me – and fortunately, my family is messy enough that I always have plenty of therapeutic clutter at hand.

5. Tell yourself, “Well, at least I…” Get some things accomplished. Yes, you had a horrible day, but at least you went to the gym, or played with your kids, or walked the dog, or read a magazine.

6. Exercise is an extremely effective mood booster – but be careful of exercise that allows you to ruminate. For example, if I go for a walk when I’m upset about something, I often end up feeling worse, because the walk provides me with uninterrupted time in which to dwell obsessively on my troubles.

7. Stay in contact. When you’re having a lousy day, it’s tempting to retreat into isolation. Studies show, though, that contact with other people boosts mood. So try to see or talk to people, especially people you’re close to.

8. It’s a cliché, but things really will look brighter in the morning. Go to bed early and start the next day anew. Also, sleep deprivation puts a drag on mood in the best of circumstances, so a little extra sleep will do you good.

9. Remind yourself of your other identities. If you feel like a loser at work, send out a blast email to engage with college friends. If you think members of the PTA are mad at you, don’t miss the spinning class where everyone knows and likes you.

10. Keep perspective. Ask yourself: “Will this matter in a month? In a year?” I recently came across a note I’d written to myself years ago, that said “TAXES!!!!!!!!!!!!!” I dimly remember the panic I felt about dealing with taxes that year; but it’s all lost and forgotten now.

11. Write it down. When something horrible is consuming my mind, I find that if I write up a paragraph or two about the situation, I get immense relief.

12. Use the emergency mood tool-kit. For an emergency happiness intervention, try these tips for getting a boost in the next HOUR.

13. Be grateful. Remind yourself that a LOUSY day isn’t a CATASTROPHIC day. Be grateful that you’re still on the “lousy” spectrum.

Happiness guru and radio host Karen Salmansohn has a great post today about the effectiveness of humor in a bunch of different situations. I think she’s absolutely right — although it’s very tough for me to use humor when I’m angry, annoyed, or anxious, when I do manage to do it, it’s always wildly effective. And it makes unhappy situations happier.

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Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • I need to heed #1 better. I really REALLY like #2. Thanks!

  • Mella DP

    8 is huge for me. That’s one truth I’m thankful I discovered in childhood.
    Regarding 1, why not take the time (before the bad day) to figure out some more constructive ways to “treat yourself”? With some forethought and effort, and perhaps a little change of perspective, we can find more non-toxic means of pampering. Several of the other suggestions in the list make good starting points.

  • Martin

    I love your site!!! I have already started following your twelve commandments! Or at least the first one.

  • K

    I do love this site and I try to tell people about it. But how can I tell someone to use your little tips and keep a positive outlook when they have a catastrophic event happen to them? Like losing someone on 9/11 and still having to go on without them. Yes things do change and life goes on but you still have these horrible memories to deal with.

  • how timely! lousy day, right here, right now! haha.
    and its funny because I definately treated myself to a latte and a bagel- but it felt good! no regret there!
    oh and #4 has always been my way of getting through a bad mood. after i tackle some cleaning project i am ditracted and usually too tired to think about my issue anymore.
    Thanks for the post!

  • andrea

    i can’t imagine how a new pair of jeans could make me feel worse. i personally find a little (A LITTLE) retail therapy sometimes helps remind me of my inner hottness days when i’m feeling anything but.

  • I just discovered your blog through sk*rt and I think your mission is a great one. This list is helpful, especially this time of year. I needed to read it BEFORE I was screaming in my car because it was stuck in the snow yesterday. lol I hadn’t thought of #9 before. I like that.

  • Lorre

    My favorite “treat” for myself after a particularly gnarly day? A nice, hot, soothing bubble bath with all the trimmings – music, a cup of hot tea, and candles…works like a charm every time!

  • I like #3. Usually this involves giving myself a facial. I’ll buy something I’ve never tried before and spend an hour steaming and exfoliating. Generally does the trick.

  • Great list!
    I sometimes do something along the lines of #5. My friends and I call it a “gleee!list” but I’ve seen it more widely referred to as “joy sadhana.” You write down five good things about the day and three things you did well. They can be big things or little things — the friend who introduced me to the idea has a chronic illness that makes it hard for her to even get out of bed some days, so she’ll put “took a shower” on the list because it /is/ an accomplishment, however small it might seem. I’ve fallen out of the habit of making gleee!lists, but they really do help sometimes!

  • This was really useful. Found you through sk*rt.
    Yes…sleep is so important. But, I also loved your story about stepping back from a situation…about your daughter and husband and being dragged to a movie. I can only imagine how much more capable and centered you felt after stepping away for a minute, to retreat. Thanks!

  • Retail therapy is interesting. It’s very person-dependent. Some people really do get a lift, and are able to keep spending in control and buy something they will need and use. And they find it cheering (some people disapprove, but nevertheless, fact is, some people do find it cheering.)
    Other people turn to retail therapy and end up feeling out of control — because they buy things they can’t really afford, or because they go into drive-by shopping mode and buy things they don’t need, and end up feeling surrounded by clutter.
    it’s great to have “treats” that are special and feel like indulgences, but don’t generate guilt or anxiety — a hot bath is a perfect example. The trick is to keep that kind of thing rare, so it feels like a treat, instead of doing it so often that it doesn’t feel special.

  • You really do have a great site with wonderful information. I’ve been working hard on the happiness thing myself, reading a lot of books etc. Your tips are right on the mark. I find that distraction and doing something nice for someone else are often the hardest for me to remember to do, but the most effective also. I have some info on happiness on my blog at that might interest you or your readers. Keep up the great work and good luck with your book!

  • Lisa

    In Fridays Wall St. Journal in the Books Review section, they review a book I don’t know if you have seen called “Against Happiness”. I get the print version of the paper and I don’t get the online version or I would give you the link. Here is the link to Amazon:
    The reviewer made the book sound like it was about the journey to happiness. I have got to add it to my “must read” list.
    My therapist used to say: “it’s okay to have a bad day.” Everyone has a different view of what bothers or not bothers them along with what makes them happy and gives them solace. I still view the day my Dad died as one of the most incredible days of my life. I loved him dearly…it was an honor to be there when he passed.

  • There’s a lot of great perspective here at “The Happiness Project” blog for ALL OF US TO gaze at, digest and integrate into our otherwise happy-challenged lives. Thanks for your ambition and drive–please, keep it up! I’ll be back!

  • I like your list. Having recently started a PhD and working at home a lot, many days feel lousy. I would add move yourself. I find that taking the same task to a different environment can bring a big energy boost. Why not read/write/brainstorm in a cafe or park?
    Thanks for all the great posts!

  • David

    Hi Gretchen,
    How about using meditation, there’s some very strong evidence that long term meditators are happier than non-meditators. I use holosync meditation cds and crikey I’m much happier myself haha. Here’s the link, you might like to check it out:
    Thanks for the great post,

  • jellybean

    Thanks for these comments. 😀
    Ive just added this site to my favourites.
    Im living with a chronic illness, and waiting for the gastroenterologist, cardiologist and physician to call me back.
    Im not well.
    Some of the things i do are
    – sleep
    – laugh or smile (even a stupid one, because that will make me laugh)
    – watch tv or a movie
    – google ‘funny stuff’ and look at the pics
    – look at these blogs
    – listen to music
    – pat my dog (a better friend than they realise)

  • Amy

    This should be included in your “best of” list! It’s the post I refer to the most often. Luckily I don’t have a lot of bad days, but when I do, I try to use these tips.
    Thanks Gretchen!