Why These 6 Happiness “Boosters” Might Actually Make You Feel Worse.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day, or List Day. This Wednesday: Why these six happiness “boosters” might actually make you feel worse.

Everyone has a few tricks for beating the blues. It turns out, however, that several of the most popular strategies don’t actually work very well in the long term. Beware if you are 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. 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 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. I’ve found that I sometimes get a real happiness boost from giving something up, quitting something, or breaking a bad habit. When you’re feeling down, you might be tempted to let yourself off the hook, to think, “I’ll allow myself to skip my run today, I need a break.” In fact, sticking to a resolution will boost your sense of self-esteem and self-control. So NOT letting yourself off the hook might do more to boost your happiness. I often let myself off the hook by being very messy — “I’m too agitated to deal with putting these papers away now” — but then the disorder just makes me feel more overwhelmed and anxious.

3. Turning off your phone. 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 unhappy, you’re better off making plans with friends or family.

4. Venting your negative emotions. Many people believe in the “catharsis hypothesis” and think that expressing anger is healthy-minded and relieves their feelings. Not so. Studies show that expressing anger aggressively 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 get going, I can whip myself into a fury. It’s better to behave calmly.

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 is going to make you feel worse. Put on your clothes — including your shoes — so you feel prepared for whatever the day might offer. While you’re at it, <ahref=”http://www.gretchenrubin.com/2009/08/make-your-bed”>make your bed.

6. Having a drink. Alcohol affects people differently, and even if you don’t have a drinking problem, alcohol can still be a drag on your happiness. Speaking for myself, alcohol is not a happiness-booster. I more or less gave up drinking because I realized that even just one glass of wine or a beer made me feel belligerent and indiscreet — and then desperately sleepy. Don’t assume that a drink will help you unwind, or feel more convivial — it sure doesn’t have that effect on me.

Have you ever tried to cheer yourself up using a strategy that just made you feel worse, in the end? Or what are more effective ways to beat the blues?

* I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my love for little things (both literal and figurative, a la St. Therese of Lisieux), and so was particularly interested when a thoughtful reader sent me this lovely video — Carrie Rebora Barratt of the Metropolitan Museum talking about her passion for “Small Things.”

  • Great points Gretchen.
    All of these might feel good short term but long term they just ruin your health or make you depressed and so on.

    Breaking a bad cycle takes focusing on the good, spending time with positive people, taking affirmative action.

    To feel better change your mindset to the good instead of revelling in the bad.

  • lisastef

    “although we think that we act because of the way we feel, in fact, we often feel because of the way we act.”


    sometimes, just putting on some makeup, doing my hair, and strapping on my sexy red heels puts a huge positive spin on my mood. kind of like tricking the mind…or just jolting it out of its rut.

  • One thing that’s helped me not to “treat” myself with things that are not helping me: I visualize as clearly as possible what I will feel like _after_ having the treat, rather than allowing myself to fantasize about the treat itself. With that visualization in focus, I ask myself, “Do I feel better now, having had that treat?” Invariably, the answer is no.

    • PNWGal

      I agree with this totally….I think to myself what will I feel like after I have this Snickers/Reese’s Cup and it works most of the time. I can also skip the trip to McDonald’s just by thinking about the greasy straw in my mouth after a bit of fries and burger. Although this strategy is helpful to me to avoid the temptation to give in to “bad” treats….it is less successful to think about how I will feel AFTER I exercise or do a task that is generally positive. I always wonder why that is….

      • Sue

        the easiest way to think McDs as GROSS, not an “indulgence”, is what I learned taking my high maintenance kids there. I never got a chance to eat mine til it was cold–YUCK!! So all I have to do is  remember how greasy and disgusting FF & greasy burgers tastes when they get cold… 

        and remind myself: it’s not like it’s different food when it’s hot. Your stomach doesn’t know the difference, only your taste buds…  that momentarily “hot and delicious” big mac and fries is the same disgusting lump in your stomach when it gets cold.meanwhile contrast cold fast food to cold homemade food,  food that is served hot, but still tastes great when it gets cold: corn on the cob, steak (they even make a cold steak salad), baked potato. That’s enough to  make me want to eat the good stuff instead and never be tempted by fast food (well, that and having read/watched SuperSize me, Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollen’s books.

        It’s really no sacrifice at all to avoid fast food.

        • Thanks, Sue. Fast food is one of the worst things that occasionally tempts me, and you have given me a GREAT framework for coping with the temptation. 

  • I love an occasional “duvet day” where I hang out at home in my robe, take naps, read and watch old movies. It’s a rare treat – about once or twice a year – to have no appointments and no deadlines. Always make the bed, though.

  • This is really a helpful list. I especially found the point about releasing anger to be interesting. I do that a lot and I’m going to try and see if it makes a difference in my mood to refrain from that venting. 

    I just discovered your blog and am really enjoying your practical tips and gentle approach. As someone suffering from depression, it’s nice to know that I am not the only one who struggles to be happy.

  • The “comforting yourself with a treat” one is so true. Even though you think you may want something yummy and really not good for you, once you have it you’ll end up feeling worse. I’ve learned that the hard way a few times! Although I do somewhat agree with ‘venting your negative emotions’ that can sometimes turn out to be really good for you (in my opinion). Sometimes all I need is a good friend and a few hours of talking it out & venting to feel a million times better about a situation! 

  • I take my mom’s advice: Reboot. Just like your cranky PC, you can set things right in your day by simply starting over. Take a moment, remove yourself (go outside, whatever), take a deep breath and decide that your day starts from right then. Put the rest of it behind you and move forward.

  • DLinBham

    I do enjoy a glass or two of wine with my  husband a couple times a week, relaxing after work. Especially out on the deck when the weather’s nice. But everyone’s different. I have found that getting up, showered and dressed for work, even though I work at home, makes a big difference in my productivity. I can’t work in my pajamas. And if I actually get up and put my exercise clothes on, I am way  more likely to actually exercise!

  • DLinBham

    One exception — one thing that makes me very happy is our new family tradition of wearing our PJs all Christmas Day. We actually shower and put on clean PJs after the present opening and breakfast, but it’s such a fun luxury! But you’re right, NOT something to do when you’re feeling blah and lethargic as a way to boost your mood.

  • KCDebi

    I got a terrific bit of advice from a wise woman about overcoming bad feelings. She said I could wallow and feel sorry for myself, have a good old fashioned pity party, for 1 hour – set a timer and get it out of your system. Then once the timer went off, move on. I found that just the attempt to get it out of my system lightened my mood and I felt better long before the timer went off. It didn’t miraculously fix anything, but giving myself permission to feel bad AND having an exit strategy for the moping seemed to work really well for me.

  • Erica_JS

    It all depends on context.  After a day being beseiged by demands and decisions from all sides, NOTHING feels better than switching off the phone!

    • gretchenrubin

      Good point!

  • I think that #1 and #2 are some of the biggest things contributing to my dissatisfaction with myself.  I really need to keep the overall goal in mind, not the short term.

    #4 is one I kind of disagree with, mainly because I’m the kind of person who tends to stew.  I stay silent and think about my anger, and that makes it boil up even more.  I find that if I talk to someone else about it, that person can often help me find a way of dealing with it.  The best thing to do, though, is to address it — not just vent, but to actually talk to the other person and say, “Hey, this really upset me.”  The problem is getting into the state where you can have that conversation in a productive way.  I do think it’s important to really address it, and not let it become a grudge.

    • gretchenrubin

      With #4, I was really meaning actions like yelling, throwing things,
      slamming doors. You’re absolutely right, a calm discussion of anger can be
      very helpful, but acting with fury usually doesn’t relieve those feelings,
      but exacerbates them.

      • Barry

        For me, I feel that I may express anger or frustration in an attempt to control the other person, either to hold them at arms length or to reduce their demands on me. But this backfires, as I realize perhaps even during the confrontation that my behavior isn’t appropriate.

        I think this ties into “being the way you feel” and just makes me feel worse! While it’s good to express oneself – don’t keep things bottled up – it’s also wise to try to connect to the other(s) rather than explode on them.

        Perhaps it’s different if you’re angry while alone. In that case, how long can you stay angry?

  • It is so true that venting your negative emotions does not make you feel better even though you think it will.  I really like the letting yourself off the hook advice.  When I really think about it I do that a lot!  Time for me to be more conscious of that.  What helps me the most is meditation.  I committed to one month of meditating to give it a fair shot and have never turned back.  Have a beautiful day!

  • In regard to whatever may have cause us to turn to these 6 great suggestions Perhaps we can add a 7th which would suggest that we don’t believe ourdelves or the stories and interpretations that we repeat in our mind from which we react by desiring 1-6.  Just a thought…

  • Madhurya

    You are so rightabout #4, infact when I was mad at my mum, I really wanted to let it out, but instead I tried to analyse the reason behind my anger and tried to work it out myself.
    By the end of the day, I forgot all about it and ended up having a wonderful time with my parents. 🙂

  • Good advice as usual!  🙂  #1 is really true, it’s nice sometimes but other times you just feel worse after you’ve indulged in a treat.  Lounging around in your pjs all day is kind of nice on the weekends, though it does make you feel more tired and it makes it harder to go out and do something when you’re feeling kind of lazy!

  • Maria Angelica Paz Garcia Piza

    I don’t know about the negative… I was that kind of people that kept crappy things for myself or try to let them go thinking in positive things, but I’ve been having a hard time doing that lately, I feel like writing in my blog a few lines about something that really gets on my nerves help me to release stress and anger and I feel way better. I’m not that kind person who likes to “spread”  negativity btw.

  • This is so true. I very often find myself eating junk food when I’m in a bad mood. Or just laying around not doing much of anything. And you’re right, it always makes me feel worse! As someone suffering from depression I have to be very careful about how I deal with my moodiness.

    • Sue

      my husband does that. I have to ORDER him to go get exercise instead or in addition to. but if he gets the junk food first it’s all over.

      meanwhile every single time he (&/or I) succeed in getting him to ride exercise bike instead, he’s cheered up, saying “If they could just _bottle_ that great feeling you get after aerobic exercise they could conquer depression…”

  • Shawndra Russell

    Hi Gretchen,

    Great post. Relates back to one of the most important points of your book about letting go of guilt and anger as these six definitely can attribute to those feelings. I am on May, and the book has been exactly what I need to motivate myself to go after my dream of becoming a full-time writer. Thank you for your inspiration and dedication!

  • dora Vandenberg

    Being in sweet sure should grand.

  • dora Vandenberg

     I haven’t been running around in sweats for ages. But I can see where or after a while it would suck.

    Coffee is on

  • You’re right — staying in my pajamas all day makes me feel worse, not better. Even if I don’t “feel” like leaving the house, I always feel better once I’m out!

    • Guest

      It all depends… I think once in a while, helps to wear your pj for the whole day… I am always in a hurry, alwasy with a schedule, with a place to be, and things move so fast, that I am happy when I get to stay home in my pj… it is not a weekly thing, not even a monthly thing… I guess that’s why works for me and even for my son he seems to be happy to stay home in his pj and not having to be outdoors.

  • Guest

    #4 is absolutely true! When you’re upset or angry most people will tell you, “why don’t you go hit a punching bag or something” Please don’t give out this advice! Studies show that if you physically express that emotion you are only confirming with your mind that it was correct feeling to have. This will refuel your emotions and create anger cycle. (not good).

  • Interesting note on #3. It would seem “intuitive” that extroverts would benefit from interacting with other people, but on the other hand, “counterintuitive” that introverts would benefit in the same way. I love it when information like this contradicts what one may logically come to conclude.

    With Love and Gratitude,


  • Michelle

    As an introvert, I have to disagree that getting around people will make me feel better. I’ve learned that when I’m in a depressive or anxious state, being around others only exacerbates those feelings. 

    My alone time is my decompression time. I journal, I blog, I draw, I take a bath, I watch movies that make me feel better…but I’ve learned that being with others only makes those states of being last longer than if I contend with them alone.

    • Sue

      I think most of us need to connect AND need time alone. But too much of either makes us crazy.

  • Barbara

    I like to buy flowers to boost my mood – the smells, the colours, the brightness they add.  It satisfies the need for a treat while giving great pleasure to all who see them.

  • Sue

    reading your posts can either make me happier as an indulgence/precious personal time but then I get pissed at myself b/c now it is 11:49pm and sleep is (as you say) of utmost importance!! 

    happiness is understanding that we just can’t have everything we want…and picking the thing that is better for us. (so good night!)

  • Dancingyourbliss

    Agreed. Thank you for these wonderful reminders!

  • Ad #4 (Venting your negative emotions): You are right, there are two opinions. One of them, the one you seems to prefer, is the attempt to habituate a more stoic response. Two problems: 1. When a emotion is “negative”, you must ask, “for whom?” That’s not always clear, beacuse all emotions are rational, when being based on objective reality. 2. The dichotomy a) “acting out” versus b) “stoicism” is dubious, because an emotion must, first ane foremost, be rational, i.e. instrumental in the pursuit of long-term contentment. — Picking (a) oftentimes is the expression of an hystrionic and fundamentally anti-social character. Picking (b) the expression of short-sighted pragmatism (“true is what works”) an can be seen as a form of dishonesty. Both options don’t seem to be based on objective reality. Better than tryining to manage your emotions (by “willing them into existence”), try to manage their reasons for being either rational or irrational: your intellect and how (good, i.e. non-contradictory) it identifies objective reality. Being mad is a good “choice” when it is none, like any other emotion, including positive ones. Your choice should be: to analyze, to integrate and, ultimatively, to understand.

  • Klein92

    Just found this site.  I am anxious to read the book. One thing that also helps is napping.  I have to be careful not to make it a habit, but once in a while it is a great blessing!

  • Christine Peterson

    In Susan Stewart’s book “On Longing” is a discussion of the miniature that you may enjoy if you delight in small things. I so enjoyed the video of the Met employee. Thank you for sharing.

    • gretchenrubin

      Wow, that book looks very interesting. It’s on my list now!

  • Harriet Fancott

    Oy! So true: …. “I realized that even just one glass of wine or a beer made me feel belligerent and indiscreet — and then desperately sleepy.” That is me! And yet I persist. #noted #lesigh