5 Common Happiness Mistakes — “Boosters” That Actually Do More Harm Than Good.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 5 happiness boosters that actually do more harm than good.

Everyone has a few tricks for beating the blues – things you do when you’re feeling down to try to boost your mood. I’ve found out from long experience, however, that several of the most popular strategies don’t actually work very well in the long term. Beware if you’re tempted to try any of the following:

1. Comforting yourself with a “treat.” Often, the things we choose as “treats” aren’t good for us. (That’s why they’re treats! We usually restrain ourselves!) 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 more 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. In particular, beware of…

2. Letting yourself off the hook. When I’m feeling down, I feel tempted to let myself off the hook, to think, “I’ll allow myself to skip the gym today, I need a break.” In fact, sticking to a resolution does more to boost my sense of self-esteem and self-control. (Plus, exercise itself boosts my happiness.) So NOT letting yourself off the hook might do more to boost your happiness. At the end of a bad day, you can say, “Well, at least I went to the gym/finished that horrible report/took my dog to the dog park.”

3. Retreating to your sofa. Studies show that extroverts and introverts alike get a mood boost from connecting with other people. Although it can be tempting to isolate yourself when you’re feeling blue, you’re better off making plans with friends or family.

4. Expressing your negative emotions. Many people believe in the “catharsis hypothesis” and think that expressing anger by yelling, throwing things, punching pillows, slamming doors, cursing, etc. is healthy-minded and relieves their feelings. Not so. Studies show that aggressively expressing anger only aggravates it; as Plutarch observed, “Anger, while in its beginning, often can be ended by silence, or neglect.” I’ve certainly found this to be true; once I start yelling, I can whip myself into a fury. There are situations, of course, when my anger is a sign of a real problem that needs attention; I find that making sure that I express myself calmly means that I feel less riled up — and, added bonus, that approach also elicits a better response from others.

5. Staying in your pajamas all day. One of the most helpful things I’ve learned in my happiness research is that although we think that we act because of the way we feel, in fact, we often feel because of the way we act. As improbable as this sounds, it really works. Sometimes it can be fun to hang out in your sweats all day, but if you’re feeling lethargic, powerless, or directionless, not getting dressed may make you feel worse. Put on your clothes so you feel prepared for whatever the day might offer. While you’re at it, make your bed.

* Today, I got out of my pajamas and away from my sofa to meet the writer Alice Bradley, of the famous Finslippy blog. She is as funny in person as on her blog! Which is high praise.

* It’s Word-of-Mouth Day, when I gently encourage (or, you might think, pester) you to spread the word about the Happiness Project. You might:
— Link to a post on Twitter (follow me @gretchenrubin)
— Sign up for my free monthly newsletter (about 46,000 people get it)
Buy the book
Thanks! I really appreciate any help. Word of mouth is the BEST.

  • I just had to reinforce that 4th one. There is a lot of research out there showing that venting negative emotions doesn’t really make them diminish. Unfortunately, little of this research gets in the mainstream media, and people keep on talking about their negative emotions like it’s gonna make them go away.

    • reverendmother

      Clarification question: Are you saying that even *talking* about your negative emotions doesn’t help? I thought the research was about venting, yelling, hitting things and so forth. Talking seems like the emotionally intelligent response, in the sense of it helping someone come to a greater understanding and/or a solution.

      • phoenix1920

        I initially thought that talking about negative events was healing, but from seeing this in action with my husband, I no longer believe it’s always the right approach. He likes to talk about situations that are bothering him, but the more he talks about them, the more he reinforces that he has a reason to be irritated and the more he hangs onto his frustration. He could be having a good day, and the neighbor asks about the situation, and suddenly, he is frustrated again. Sometimes, there is no greater understanding to be gained, and if so, perhaps it’s better to learn to let it go.

        • openfan

          I think the frustration came from the fact he didn’t resolve his issues completely, not from talking about them.

  • Spatialrelationsconsultants

    Whenever I feel this way I try and take a walk….it usually shakes the mood.

  • So it’s probably bad that I feel like doing ALL of those things right now?

    • Michelle

      Me too.

  • CB

    I say it depends what the treat is. My favorite is to sit in a warm scented bath, surrounded by lit candles, eating a plate of Chinese food. Afterward I feel relaxed, well fed, and ready for bed.

  • Aaargh — so true, so true! I justify treats, isolation, and pajamas, telling myself that I’m doing what’s best for me, when deep down, I know that’s not true. (Because it doesn’t feel any better!) Such great insights, as always, Gretchen. And sometimes I need a (gentle) kick in the pajama pants to get myself moving and really doing the things that will help me. Thank you!


    P.S. Momentary.org is giving away 10 copies of Gretchen’s fantastic book, The Happiness Project!! Details here: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=103974242989976

    win a free copy of THE HAPPINESS PROJECT!>

  • Becky

    A combo of 5 and 2, I find that when I don’t necessarily feel like exercising, if I change my clothes and put on my exercise stuff, I am suddenly much more in the mood to go for a run. After all, I’m wearing my running clothes – might as well start running somewhere. 🙂

  • Closely related to #2: When you don’t feel like doing anything all day, it really helps to do at least one thing beyond the bare minimum. Just taking care of that one bill you’ve been ignoring or running a single nagging errand goes a long way.

  • Lj

    Oh boy, I’m guilty on all 5 counts. I don’t stay in my pjs per say, but changing from my pjs to my sweats seems to be the same thing for me. I’ll count that one too. Thanks for the reminder!

  • anonymous

    I feel like you are watching me. Today I seem to be having a BLAH day…feeling lonely ans sorry for myself. Then I read this post. It made me mad…mostly because you are right! Ugh!! Thank you for making me see my part in this.

  • I like walking too. That can usually help shake that feeling when it hits.

    Also, I saw a stack of your Happiness Project Book at Anthropology yesterday when I was out shopping. 🙂

  • I so agree with number four, yet there are so many people who swear that it is necessary to “let it out.” I find that looking for a positive spin on a situation that has angered me is more productive than letting myself go down the rabbit hole of negative emotions.

    I recently wrote a piece on how I kept myself from getting angry at my ex over a child care situation. I call it “Letting Things Go.”

  • LivewithFlair

    I totally needed to hear this today. I’m going to the gym tomorrow. I’m inspired!

  • Theresa Vaz

    I really needed this post. Lately I’ve been thinking maybe I’m well suited for a hermit’s life in very comfortable pj’s

  • Ann

    Oh, about 25 years ago next week I was lying in a hospital bed, consumed with the thought that I had to accomplish something that day. And then I reminded myself that at about noon I had given birth to my son…and, ladies and gentlemen, I gave myself the rest of the day off. I had accomplished enough and did not have to address anything else on my to do list for at least a day. Sometimes, you gotta give yourself some “okay to do nothing” time.

  • I think staying in your pajamas all day long is the way not to go. It only keep one feeling drowsy and sleepy all day. Here’s a quick tip, Once you get up. Hop yah a** in the shower and do the hardest task of the day with a smile. It maybe taking your kids to skool or even showering your hubby with love. Either way, its a great way to stay energetic and happy all day long. Great post Gretchen.

  • This is on up there as one of my favorites of your posts so far. I do the 2-3-5 shuffle far too often when I am down. I find that for those of us who are introverted it’s hard to explain to others that human connection is still an important need. There’s a lot of confusion about introverts. Yes, we need some solo time to charge our batteries, and yes big group events wipe us out, but my one-on-one friendship time (particularly in person and not over the phone or net) always gives me a huge boost.

    #4 — I actually was working on explaining that one to my 3 year old this morning. So true but hard to put into a context that a little one can understand.

  • Clarevet

    Oh darn it… I was just getting settled into the groove of a “poor me”/”I don’t want to do anything today” kind of morning, but now I have no excuses. Thanks! (I think… grumble… grumble…)

  • Vickie Feminist

    I try to have a few “happy clothes” favorite colorful tops that will make me smile when I notice them during the day for those gloomy, grumpy mornings, at work or at home.

    My other secret is going to sites that cheer me up like this one and the LOL Cats and Disappointed Rabbits and fascinating science ones.

  • Lyyli

    I agree with all of the above, except #3. IMO, sometimes, a person truly needs time to be alone, and this time can be so healing or rejuvinating. Now that I’m the mom of 2, I can’t think of very many times where I’ve actually had that luxury. I go from getting kids ready for school/to work/to cooking dinner, doing homework with kids, and putting kids down/to chores/to time with hubby. Too much and I start feeling blue. To re-charge, I crave me-time and when I can take that and just relax on the sofa, listen to the quietness of the night settle on our home, listen to my thoughts, my soul is filled with peace. For me, I think #3 really depends on the person/siutation.

  • So true! I am guilty of all charges. I think I might put my pjs back on and have some chocolate sadly I’ve already worked out so I can’t avoid it. 🙂 Seriously – I have to agree. While I’ve tried all of these none of them have really worked.

  • practicallyintuitive

    Hey! These are all methods on my “approved” list! 🙂

    You’re right, though. I learned this the hard way during the first summer I had off after working all my adult life. I hung around the house (in my pajamas!), drinking pots of coffee and surfing the ‘net. It was a good day when I managed to do something domestic before my husband came home.

    I learned that I needed routine to keep my sanity.

    The next summer when I lucked into being off again, I set a schedule for myself and followed it to the letter (off the computer at 10am, chores, going into town, etc) and I was a *much* happier girl.

    Great post.

  • JenDC

    I’m guilty of most of these, especially comforting myself with a treat. It’s no secret that everyone is my family is an emotional eater. I tend to go with some type of chocolate I’m ashamed to say I can put away a pint of ice cream very quickly if I’m not happy (I also have not done this in a while). I do find that taking an exercise class is a much better treat and the effects last longer. I also find that I like to dress a bit nicer when I am feeling down or sick.

  • This couldn’t have been posted on a better day. I needed to read it, and the comments as well. Looks like I won’t be skipping the gym after work today! 🙂

  • SarahHP

    I totally agree with number 5. I realised very soon after having my little girl that the best way to get out of that strange post natal funk was to get dressed the second i got out of bed. If I was still in my PJs at midday it really did drag me down.

  • Richard

    But what if you have a mouth ulcer (US: canker sore)?

    • Val

      Switch to a toothpaste without Sodium Lauryl Sulfate. Google it – I had so many when under stress, switched toothpaste and have had them rarely since then. Most toothpastes in stores (at least in the US) have this ingredient, so I bought online. Trader Joe’s toothpaste does not have it – a much cheaper option.

  • “Anger, while in its beginning, often can be ended by silence, or neglect.”

    Yes! This concept has changed my life.

  • Sunseekers_

    Gosh this is so true – I find if I put stuff off or treat myself all I do is feel more guilty and worse.

  • Sherri

    I think you do need to talk about your emotions – vent to a trusted friend – spouse -whatever – not all the time, but once in a while… otherwise, you can feel very alone in your angst. Also, I actually see nothing wrong with rewarding yourself with a treat or letting yourself off the hook one day. I can get very bogged down by my daily routine and need a break now and then. Sometimes, I think, the treat CAN be the gym. It is for me – followed by a protein recovery shake :-). Have to say – I agree with some other people here – when my babies were small (and my youngest is only 2), I would get up, get ready – did wonders for my frazzled frame of mind and my less than stellar body image after pregnancy. Also, I do think people need to be alone, but… if you are feeling down or overwhelmed, I think it is best to get out. Liked reading this – hope my two cents make sense ;-).

  • Heidi

    Hi! I just found your book at the front of a display at my library today. Funny thing is, a very good friend and myself just yesterday made a pact to start a project like this! (we both recently experienced breakups with our partners, and are trying to rediscover what makes US happy) How awesome, to stumble upon your book! I have the feeling it will be quite helpfull and you cant count on me to spread the word to my friend(s) as well!

  • Jenn S

    I have found that using essential oils both for myself in the bath tub and also to get in the mood with my husband has worked great! To relax and wind down I use Lavender, Bergamot and Cedarwood. And to create the mood for a nice romantic night I have used Rose, Sandalwood and massage oil. Essential oils are wonderful. I found out about them from Sherri Nickols from Unleash Your Sparkle! If you are interested you can check out her site here: http://tinyurl.com/239stpk

  • openfan

    Recently I have learned how to express my anger without attacking my boyfriend. It is tricky, but I learned this from my pre-school internship experience. Instead of exhausting myself by blaming him, I accurately spot what exactly he said and what he didn’t say(what i wish that he could’ve said) and calmly communicate with him. My anger would always end in the conversation “how can we handle the situation better next time?” “what could’ve you said instead?” or “are you ready to let go your defensiveness next time? ” because the answers I get from him are usually positive. It is way more productive to think about how we can improve the situation next time instead of getting stuck in the negative emotion.
    When we are around children, we talk about how we re-shape their behaviors. We are more tolerant toward children because we tell ourselves that they didn’t know better, but as adults, there are still lots to be learned. If we could use the same kind of patience to reshape people around us, communications would definitely go a lot smoother.

    • Menzrob

      You mean everything you need to know you learned in kindergarten? Somebody should write a book about that 🙂 All kidding aside, you’re right, we can learn a lot from going back to basics. Good for you Openfan!

      • openfan

        Well, the wisdom was in the preschool, but until I started to play the role of a teacher, I was unable to see it! My internship was a very spiritual experience!!

        I think a lot of our communication styles are adopted when we were infants. The louder we cry, the faster our parents would come to hug & kiss us, bring us food or change our diapers. Yet this kind of strategy became maladaptive after we started to enter the adult world.

  • Jo Roszkowski

    I just bought the book! (after waiting TOO long….) and now I have to wait for post from the U.S. but it’s on its way!

  • It is important for you to figure out what works for you. I write to help me get thru the things that get me down. And staying in bed definitely doesn’t help! I am glad I found this page!http://bernicewood.wordpress.com/2010/07/20/10-

  • Courtneycondo

    Oh my goodness, you hit it right on the head with #4. I graduated with my Master’s in English a little over a year ago, and finding work has been SUCH a struggle. I’m getting married in three months, my car is on its very last leg, and I don’t have health insurance. Each night I talk to my fiancee on the phone, and whenever I start on the topic of how overwhelmed or stressed I feel, I’ve found that I just start feeling WORSE…usually sniffles and tears ensue. So, even though it took me a year to figure it out, we made a pact: no more talking about stressful things in bed. No more of the following: “I wish I was more outgoing,” “I feel totally useless,” “My car is about to die and I can’t afford a new car payment.” Here’s why: it nearly ALWAYS leads to him saying, “Well, I don’t know what to say. Do something about it if it bothers you that much.” To which I feel obligated to respond by sniffling, and angrily shouting, “I DON’T KNOW WHY I BOTHER TELLING YOU ANYTHING.” This makes me feel like he’s a complete idiot, and him feeling like I’m an over-emotional crazy person.
    So, whenever we have concerns about stress, money, where we’re going to live, what we’re going to do with the rest of our lives, we share them during the day. Night time amplifies worries and strife, but looking at problems head on in the daytime is refreshing, and usually much more helpful. We’re both more receptive to each others’ (very real) concerns when we’re in the positive state of mind brought about by daylight and human contact.

  • Jamie

    Ok, I am going to really take these helpful tips to heart, starting to not have a treat right now! And fold the laundry, even though I do feel like I have done enough for today:) I have a happiness tip (pardon me if you’ve already expressed this): A nice pick-me-up is to view one of my Facebook friend’s photo albums. Looking a 20 pictures of someone you know smiling is very uplifting.

  • Coachwithheart

    When we talk about emotions we are also talking about energy, negative energy vs. positive energy (catabolic vs. anabolic). Shifting the negative energy (fear, doubt, worry & anger) from destructive to constructive energy will improve happiness and joy.

    So, instead of thinking about all the negative and speaking about all the things that are wrong, think about all the things that are right. About 90% of the time things are going good. 90% of the people who want to be employed are. When we shift the thinking a bit things start looking better.

    Shift the anger, what is really life or death? Probably not, so turn the anger into a conscious thought and deal with it, replace it with a good thought.


  • Leslie

    Some of these are certainly true, but I think it depends a great deal on the situation and what the “treat” is or why you feel like retreating to your couch. (I can honestly say I’ve never understood the appeal of spending the entire day in my pajamas.) I know for me, there are sometimes when I feel blue that I do feel better if I go out with people. And then there are some times when I really need some space to decompress, and making plans and going out would just make everyone involved miserable. Fortunately, I’m getting better at determining which time is which.

  • Leslie

    Yes to one-on-one friendship time! Going out to the bar with a whole bunch of people doesn’t do a whole lot to boost my mood, but going for dessert with one or two good friends is great!

  • Love this post. I have to talk myself out of these pretty often, especially the food treat vicious cycle.

    PS-  the newsletter signup link on the Word-of-Mouth segment is broken, just a heads up.

  • My personal favourite is to stay warm in a very comfy aromatic bath tub. Surrounded by ignited candle lights, eating a delicious oriental meal. I feel very peaceful, and content with life.

  • OddDuck

    I do not agree with most of these. If I don’t talk about what frustrates me, it just builds up until I explode because nothing gets solved. If I put off a food “treat” I really want, I eat everything else until I finally have what I originally wanted in the first place. How can I connect with other people if all I have are negative emotions, and I am not supposed to talk about them? I have never stayed in my pajamas all day, so I cannot comment on that.
    The Authors “long experience” and mine are quite different.