13 Tips for Dealing with a Really Lousy Day.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 13 tips for dealing with a really lousy day (note the fittingly unlucky number).

We’ve all had terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days. A bad work evaluation, a disappointing grade, a potential crush who turns out to be interested in someone else, a fight with your mother, a worrisome report from a doctor, a broken resolution…lousy days take many forms.

Here are some strategies I use for coping with a lousy day:

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. Be selfless, if only for selfish reasons. 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.

3. Distract yourself. When my older daughter was born, she had to be in Neonatal Intensive Care for a week. I spent every hour at the hospital, until my husband dragged me away to go to an afternoon movie. I didn’t want to go, but afterward, 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, or I often re-read beloved classics of children’s literature.

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 can be a comfort. 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 your children a story, or recycled.

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. Be grateful. Remind yourself that a lousy day isn’t a catastrophic day. Be grateful that you’re still on the “lousy” spectrum. Probably, things could be worse.

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

What other strategies have you used to deal with a lousy day? It’s helpful to have a lot of options from which to choose.

* My children’s literature/young-adult literature reading groups are famous! First, the New York Times, now the Paris Review blog! My friend and fellow kidlit fan Sarah Burnes is guest-blogging there. Yay.

* Want to launch a group for people doing happiness projects together? Email me at grubin at gretchenrubin dot com. Just write “starter kit” in the subject line.

  • bearing

    One of my favorites is to turn my energies toward tomorrow — “It may be too late to save THIS day, but what can I do now that will make my tomorrow better?”

  • Jarvek7

    very good advice. i use some of these already. thanks for expanding my options to stop “that rotten day” in it’s tracks.

  • Itsjustjenna

    OK, did I have a bad day today because you had this post or is it just really wonderful that you posted this on exactly the day that I needed it? The one tip that really helped me the most today was to be grateful – I had friends who dropped everything to help me out – so wonderful & blessed.

  • simplicity

    i wish you could make your blog page a little bit more simple.. everywhere are words and ideas which kinda distracting and does not really appealing to look at… just a simple advice.. let us all be happy!

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks for your suggestion. If you can believe it, I’m already holding
      myself back considerably.

  • We are sometimes that incredibly stupid and just so frustrated of something. Those tips would really help… We should have been grateful enough that despite of those horrible days we had, were still alive…

  • nielmalan

    Cut your losses. I’ve learned not to drag out a lousy day and try to recover something from it at the end, but to go home and try again tomorrow.

    • gretchenrubin

      I agree, get into bed and go to sleep as soon as I possibly can. I always
      feel better the next day.

  • Karin

    If you are able to, keep some sort of reminders of positive things around you. Family photo’s, nice pictures of places you associate with holidays and especially thankyou messages from people you have helped are good to focus on when things are going wrong.

    • gretchenrubin

      Great suggestion. Family photos always make me feel better.

    • Debradylan

      I also like to hide (brief cace, bedside table drawer, favorite book, etc.) special thank you messages, so I get a big thrill when I accidentally come upon them from time to time.

  • thank you for this post Gretchen!!! i always enjoy reading your blog because it’s so positive. i’ve been having a lousy few days (assignment upon assignment at work, flu.. you name it) and these tips are just the thing!
    i have to say no. 9 and 11 work very well with me. reminding myself of my other “areas of activity” does put the problem into perspective, and writing it down usually makes it look pretty.. pathetic eheh! will be experimenting with no. 10 when need arises (hopefully not soon!)
    btw i have to disagree with simplicity, i like the blog’s layout!
    have a great day everyone!

  • I like #9: ‘Remind yourself of your other identities’. And I like that way of putting it.

    I have a life strategy of not putting all my emotional eggs in one basket – so if one thing’s going wrong, there’s usually something else that’s going better.

    Your ‘identities’ fit with this strategy beautifully! Thanks Gretchen. 🙂

  • joless

    Boy, I needed this post yesterday 🙂 Anyway, I failed dismally at 1 but also employed 3, 4, 8 and 12 so, although I munched through half a loaf of white toast (yum!) I also have a much tidier living room, washing put away etc, plus I enjoyed reading the book I was part way through and got a good night’s sleep. I realised that at least I have a job to be frustrated with, and also this should be the kicker I need to read more around my subject, and find myself a new job.

    And, yes, things are much better this morning 🙂

  • Lynn

    gretchen, i was trying to email you but it seems the email function isnt working either on my end or yours. I had a quick question. I am reading “the Happiness Project” and have just finished september. I can relate to most everything in your book especially when yoiu write that you love to take notes while reading but often forbid yourself. I do that! I have the urge to write something down but often forego the impulse becuase I dont know where to write it! Crazy I know! So where do you write your notes? Do you have a notebook? In the margins? Such a simple problem but your suggestions would really be helpful. If youd like to email me, bleiler@hotmail.com is the best way.

    Your idea and end product are fantastic. I love the book and cant wait to start my own happiness project in the near future.

    Keep smiling! Lynn

    • gretchenrubin

      Note-taking — I do it all on my computer, because my handwriting is so bad
      that it makes it hard to read what I’ve written, if I handwrite.

      I have a few gigantic documents that contain my notes. I find what I want by
      using the “search” function.

      As a result of my happiness project, I now give myself free rein to take as
      many notes as I want. I do love this, but it takes a LOT of time. Only

      Good luck with YOUR happiness project.

    • Dylan_debra

      Lynn, many years ago, 1987-1991, I kept a specific reading journal for the titles of all the books I read (& the name of who inspired me to read it) + quotes. I so regret not keeping this up. It’s a blast to come upon this diary and read it again.

      Also, I’ve never been about to consistently keep a personal diary before – until now. Opendiary.com is a great resource (and it’s free). I write in it all the time (I even transcribed my youthful reading journal into it.) What’s best is that you can access it from any computer & it’s quick and easy to make entries.

  • Psychsarah

    I’m smiling at reading this post, as one of my favourite books of all time is Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Great tips-I think everyone should bookmark this post for when they have “one of those days”.

    • gretchenrubin

      So glad you caught that allusion! I love that book. My favorite drawing: the
      posture of the mother’s body while they’re picking up the father from the
      office. Says it all.

      • libreimschussel

        I caught that, too. It’s one of my husband’s favorite children’s books and I sometimes choose it to read at bedtime with my kids when we’ve had a bad day. Some days are like that!

  • So many of these I either do already or like a lot!

    On a lousy (or dreary) day, I will treat myself to inexpensive flowers at the supermarket, a half-pound of flavored coffee or a new box of tea, maybe a glass of the Cabernet I like with my dinner–things like that. I also give myself permission to get into my jammies right after I’ve cleaned up my dinner, get comfy on the couch or in my bed with a mug of tea and read magazines. (I don’t try to be “productive.” It’s my “night off.”)

    And there are days where I think about the people who are in far worse shape than I–like the people whose homes are in foreclosure (I think about the nervous moms and dads out there who will have to move their families before the holidays) and the Haitians already living in tents who are bracing for a potentially devastating hurricane. I don’t have it so bad!

  • Jzingsheim

    You have no idea how timely this is for me. I’m looking at having to put my dog down very soon–maybe today or tomorrow. It’s awful, and right now all I feel is sad. I know it will pass–eventually–and having this post come through my feed reader is yet another reminder from the Universe that I will heal. It’s still awful though.

    • gretchenrubin

      That is so tough. Hang in there. I remember that day with my dog…

    • Guest

      I’m so so sorry to hear this. I’m such a dog lover and well up just thinking about that. Don’t know you, but sending you and your dog good thoughts. 🙂

    • Theperrys25

      Sympathies to you. It is such a hard time but a good person will know when it is right. You are right. It is awful.

    • Meghan

      I’m so sorry. I cried for days when my dog had to be put down.

    • My heart goes out to you. Being a pet lover, I can’t even begin to imagine how tough this decision must’ve been for you. As hard as it may be, I think it might be helpful to remember that you are doing a great thing to end your dog’s suffering. You are bearing the hardest part of this ordeal and you will heal!

  • This is great. I’m talking about Happiness in an emotional health group I’m doing for teens in alcohol and drug treatment today and I’m going to share this.

  • emmerz

    There are lots of sleep studies that suggest REM sleep moderates emotion-regulation, and some speculation that it may help properly store (or “consolidate”) emotional memories. This effect has even been shown in people that reach REM sleep in naps (although I wouldn’t recommend long daytime napping)! My fix for a bad day is to remind myself that it will feel better in the morning (keep perspective!) and do some deep breathing/relaxation to fall asleep. Sometimes it takes awhile, but some extra sleep always seems to help. Thanks for all of your positive ideas!

  • What a fantastic, thoughtful article. And timely, since I rarely have down days, but hit a slump just last weekend and hardly knew what to do about it. Of your list, I’m perhaps most struck by #2, #4, #7, #9, and #13 (OK, that’s nearly half the list, but still). All seem worth posting on the side of the fridge, or stuffing in my journal for times when I need some emergency guidance.

    Otherwise, what got me out of the last slump, and previous little ones, was taking time to figure out why. It sounds as though I’m the opposite of you there – a walk outside usually helps bring the reasons for “downness” (new word) right up to the forefront. Instant clarity. As soon as I see why I’m upset, it somehow makes the trouble seem totally manageable, or just gets rid of the worry altogether. If I still can’t figure out what’s up, seems as though blunt, vulnerable conversation with my boyfriend or dear friends does the trick (back to #7, eh?).

    Regardless, thanks for such lists as these. Will be sure to turn to it the next time my mood gets cloudy!



  • Very useful list! Thanks for sharing. I particularly like 2, 4, 6 and 11.

    The caution you mentioned in #6 about avoiding exercises that allow you ruminate is so true and insightful. Exercises that make you sweat (i.e., spinning) or induce lactic acid burns (i.e., interval weight training) are great, with the added benefit of detoxing.

    Now that I started my blog, I can attest to the power of #11. I think the process of organizing and writing down emotionally charged thoughts help to defang their potency.

  • LivewithFlair

    Great advice today. Here’s a fun thing you can do for a friend today (it involves emailing them to tell them when and why you think about them): http://livewithflair.blogspot.com/2010/11/what-we-think-and-do-not-say.html

  • BerniceWood

    This is a great list of suggestions! I think we just have to take what is, and roll with it. I love th whole “will this matter next year” question!

  • Thanks for this. Sometimes just having any strategy at all can make a difference – so to have 13 strategies is really great. I have printed it out and might stick it on the fridge.

  • I think of everything you mentioned, I do #5 the most already. It’s an especially good tactic to manage my depression. Sometimes it’s just things like “at least I took a shower today” or “at least I swept the bathroom,” but they can make me feel like I’m not a total failure despite the things I didn’t manage to do today.

  • Arina Nikitina

    Haha! Thanks so much, Gretch. A few hours back, I had to stay up really late to wait for a promised “closing of deal” on my recent project. And just when the sun was up, I was told to wait longer and told, “Sorry, I had a really cool party with some friends and got stuck.”

    I’ve used up my long-held routines to battle against a really mad, bad day. My patience just ran out as well. Waiting for nothing! Gosh. Then I sat back and looked at all opened windows in my computer. I had two articles ready, one finalized and I’ve responded to over ten emails while I waited.

    And so No. 5 worked well… “At least I did something productive, even if I was deprived of a few hours’ sleep.”

    Thanks again, Gretch! Something new learned, more things to live by when the next “dismal events” come.


  • Great post. I often list issues, complications and problems on my to-do list and when I do I feel much better since I don’t need to constantly remind myself. I only tend to have a ‘lousy’ day when I’m forced to handle something there and then without storing it away – briefly. It’s really annoying!

  • ray

    all very true!

  • Anytime something funkyhappens in the morning I WILL NOT say anything like, “This is going to be a bad day.” I don’t feed into it because frankly, I really don’t want to have an awful day. So I just clean up the spilled coffee, call in late due to the unset alarm, don’t worry about what I can’t find and just look forward to my day and the miracles that COULD happen 🙂

    • Thaliay

      I agrere with you. To label a day is bad makes it a continuing disaster. I had a day like that last week. It ended up by my getting a 7/8” wrenceh stuck in my new tire. Someone had dropped it in the street!! Had to get another!

      • libreimschussel

        I disagree. I think it helps to acknowledge “today is a bad day.” It’s actually an optimistic thought that acknowledges the bad day as an outlier and not the norm. The alternative thought for me is usually something like “my whole life is terrible,” which is far more depressing.

  • Abiee

    Gretchen dear!

    I found myself reading your article primarily because I was intrigued by the title.
    I often find myself thinking I’ve had a rotten day, but in retrospect it turns out to be better than the day before!!
    Now, unlike you, the only solution that works for me is to ‘treat’ myself; for example, I stay well away from the 50% off section in the department store, and head for the same outfit, costing more, but in the colour I really like! Perverse, I know, but it perks me up no end!

    Surely I can’t be the only one?!!

  • Thaliay

    Don’t forget the Scarlett O’Hara method: “Tomorrow is another day.”

  • Julia

    Amazing suggestions. I find that reading happiness/wise quotes makes me feel better. Like http://behappy.me

  • dee

    i think for many, especially teens, issues with friends are the cause of the lousy day. that said, while you list has many good suggestions, a number of them are dependent on having people, ie… to go with to a movie, stay in contact with, or reinforce our other identities. even the tool kit talks about reaching out to friends.

  • Perform out is my single most important factor I like to do, especially when I have a awful day. There is nothing else to disturb you, cellphone, children, work are all at house. It just becomes my some time to I believe there is no better medicine!

  • Asli

    My favorite ways are;

    -Most of the time I have to clarify my mind to identify what I feel, why i feel this way and if it’s right to feel this way. If I recognize that I’m wrong and then change my thoughts, the bad feeling goes immediately.

    -If that moment passes, and if I still feel bad I try this. I tell myself understandingly and lovingly: “I know why you feel this way. I totally understand. And you know what, I think you are right.” If I can do it really good, this understanding and loving atmosphere makes me look at the problem differently. I can see that my concern isn’t realistic, or the things that happen now, may turn out to be for our best in the future, etc.

    -Sometimes, I can’t deal with bad feelings right away and they start to add up. I find myself struggling and trying to get rid of the bad feelings. No matter what I do, I can’t avoid that feeling. Trying to avoid something just makes it bigger sometimes. Then, I surrender. OK, I give up, I can feel bad. I remind myself feeling bad sometimes makes us appreciate the good times.

  • Kaveen

    I usually do something for my child. Her passion is reading, hence I will do extensive research on what she might like to read next, where I could find those books etc. and then check them out at a store or library. This gives me immense satisfaction and is my mood booster. Another thing I do to distract myself is that I go for a run/walk and just being outdoors and seeing and greeting other people helps me put my worries aside.

  • Emily

    No. 5 is so true. I’ve recently been feeling like I need a break from work lately (which has finally come due to the Thanksgiving holiday) and as such these past few weeks have felt like I’ve been a less productive member of the team (the “weakest link” so to speak). But, at the end of each day, even if I’ve felt lousy about my contribution or progress I remind myself of at least one productive or at least helpful thing I did that day, no matter how small it is, and I can often think of many more. Even if it’s so small or insignificant as “I did all the dishes” or “I organized this part of the shop”. These tasks had to be done and it reminds me that if I wasn’t there to do that task, then someone else would have had to do it, which would mean that less overall would have been accomplished that day. It helps to keep things in perspective.

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  • libreimschussel

    Thanks so much for your amazing book and blog. I’m just finishing The Happiness Project now, and I’m actually trying to drag it out as long as possible, because reading it always gives me a little mood boost and I’ll be sad when it’s over. (Yes, I have considered re-reading it and probably will).

    I’m a stay-home mom of two toddlers and am prone to bouts of grumpiness that can spoil a whole day with the kids. Your book and this post especially have given me some great ideas about how to turn my moods around quickly and rescue these lousy days. I think I’ll print this post and tape it to my refrigerator!

    Oh, and I loved #6 on this list. So insightful. This summer I tried to start running again for the first time since having my oldest child five years ago. But I hated it. And my husband was baffled because he’d been trying really hard to support me, thinking it would make me happier like exercise usually does, but I felt depressed every time I went running and I couldn’t quite explain why. But you just explained it! Maybe running with a friend would fix the problem. But running by myself was just so lonely and all I did was ruminate, just like you said.

  • Nikisha Fuller

    Thank you! 🙂

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