6 Happiness “Boosters” That Might Actually Make You Feel Worse

Gretchen Rubin on creating your own personal happiness

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, 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.

Gretchen Rubin is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Happiness Project. Each Wednesday is tip day on her blog.

17 comments so far.

  1. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    Gretchen,

    Though you talk of the upsetting, bad times in life and what we can do about it as “beating the blues”, I have found that – instead – the bad moments (and more than moments) are based from things far more major.  Of course, in the many cycles of life, we are bound to have bad days.  It comes with the territory.  . and in everyone’s life there are disappointments, cancellations of engagements long planned, and days that we are “down” — just “fried”, overdone by that one last thing piled on us that is what I call “the tipping point”.  

    They are life.  We shed tears.  We say “this is not fair”.  .  but after those momentsw in the bathroom, lying on the bed crying, we move on.

    However, when we have “blows to the heart”, news that will probably affect us a long short range or for months or years — and we will as no one is immune — “happiness” is just not in the immediate equation (or thoughts of “happiness”).  We are no longer ourelves in a far deeper way.  Often these are health issues for ourselves or others, disappointments (to put it mildly when we are are told we won’t get the job we counted on, more, separation or divorice in the offing.  

    We are grown-ups.  . and the blues, as you put them, are not in this category.  And so — AFTER the tears, the situations are serious enough that we have to do some thinking.  First, we need plenty of rest if possible and drop into bed at any time we can to equalize our system as much as possible.  Phones should be turned off, and yes, we should plod around in our jammies and be sure we eat – but a cookie or two is not the end of the world at this time though eating better will “normalize” us faster. 

    What we are doing, Gretchen, is having or finding ways to have TIME TO THINK rationally about our next steps.  Doing this too fast is asking for bad decisions and mistakes.  In thinking, we must be thinking of not one choice — but choices – so we are not caught up in another set-back.   We need quiet, quiet that may be followed by talking it out with a best friend or a doctor if it is physical, more.  We need SPACE and we are allowed breaks from routines done robot-like.

    In life I have found, we have to continue learning.  We don’t know it all.  But we have the brains to set the low parts in life in motion again.  Once we have rest, time to think, and we begin to move forward – taking those first baby steps in solving the problems – we feel better.
    Happiness will elude us for a while, but the spirit of forward actiion energizes us.  

    There are NO rules for this — our problems, our psyches, are different — and our courses of action may or may not take time.  But having no phone on, resting in the beginning, and then beginning the thinking process when well-rested will hopefully assure - perhaps not the whole solution – but the many steps to that direction.  I am not suggesting ”wallowing” forever — but giving yourself time to have your heart calmed, and your brain again functioning.

    If you are not the person but ARE the good friend, tell the person with the problems that you are there fully for them when they are ready to talk or have someone work beside them.  This gives a sense of peace upcoming that you are not alone.  You won’t see the rainbow — if you are equating rainbows with “HAPPINESS” for often more time than you can believe — but you will begin making progress down the road toward better times. 

     
     
      

    • avatar mary burdt says:

      Joan, Your response to Gretchen must come from first hand experience because you understand that sometimes in crisis situations all we can do is hang out in our PJS. I am trying to get on with my life by not pushing forward on the days I am lucky just to get out of bed but taking it easy and trying to figure out what my next step will be. In time, I hope I can function normally and enjoy the things I used to. For now, I will do the best that I can do, One moment at a time. Thank you for understanding. Mary

      • avatar Joan Larsen says:

        Mary,

        As you know – and I know – to KNOW that we will be at our sharpest, our best, when out in public , , , well, if we are not forced to be out in public, faking it or not, because we are working, we will – long range – look younger, act younger, choose the correct decisions IF we have “days off”.  Why shouldn’t we?  After all, it is OUR life, isn’t it?  But the smarter of us know that in times when we get sudden “blows” (for instance, my son was just told he had cancer), it can knock our high spirits flat in one second.  After we shed tears, try to hold our cool while we say comforting things, we have to stop our minds from spinning FIRST.  And then we have to think just what we can do to make things better — or, better still, perhaps suggest steps he can take that will stop that cancer in its track faster.  (As there ARE ways and I know them!).

        But the wisest of us know that emotions screw our lives up faster than anything.  Dr. Joan believes that quietness, REST, are needed more than going out walking or exercising - having the chance of meeting people too soon who will suddenly provoke a sea of tears and confession that were not meant to be heard by them.  We KNOW this happens.  We KNOW that the most kind-hearted people can be deadly at the wrong time.  “leave me alone.  Let me think.  Let me pull myself together in my jammies — and the last thing I need is a drink when I am about to throw up with worry!!” 

        But once I am the ME people know again, I am going to be fit to handle things well — at least, I know from experience that I can.  I will hold my ground and say that REST and TIME beat out any list.  And I am happy you have been through enough trauma also that you understand — and more than that, agree.  Joan

      • avatar mary burdt says:

        Joan, Thank you for your kind reply. I want you to know that my thoughts and my daily prayers are with you and your family at this most difficult of times. With you by his side, so wise, kind and full of spirit, he will get through this ordeal because he has you as his mother.
        My heart goes out to you. Mary

    • avatar Deirdre Cerasa says:

      I agree Joan. Sometimes we just need some time to take a deep breath, regroup, sleep, a cup of tea and then take some small steps forward. Not forever, just for a bit.

    • avatar Lila says:

      I’m with you, Joan, when there is a real crisis in one’s life, the only thing that will help is rest and time… which allow the psyche to work through it. Rest is so important to so many aspects of health.

    • avatar pathgal says:

      Joan, I so enjoy your comments and perspective. Your name sounds so familiar, have you ever taught at a college?

      • avatar Joan Larsen says:

        pathgal . . . my only claim to fame directly from college was that I was the youngest graduate of Michigan State University, having from some fluke graduated from high school at 14.  . luckily directly falling into my degree in marketing (only woman).  In trying to think where our paths could have crossed, I was very very competitive, getting on Seventeen mag’s Advisory Board at 16 and Mademoiselle.   In the early days, few women were in politics.  To be the only woman just seemed a challenge to a young girl — and I won my first political election in my state (remember giving a rip-roaring talk at the state convention to women to put their foot into poliltics when I was so young myself).  Too many years later to mention, I believe that I have held political office in my state longer than anyone else in this era as I am still a go-getter and so much wiser and smarter than the young girl I once was – just raring to go.  That has remained a huge part of my life.

        But I would bet your have seen my writing in various magazines or in newspapers like NYTimes and Parade and more and more — as I happen to love writing more than sleeping.  My husband says I juggle more balls in the air than anyone he has ever seen — but then - I guess I believe that each of us should do what we love.  .  . and the end result is that pretty much I run on a high (occasionally falling in the sad and challenging times as all of us do — but that’s LIFE, isn’t it?)  

        And I bet that didn’t help at all.  Maybe you read that I fell in a couple of crevasses in Antarctica and co-piloted the Goodyear blimp — but that was a while ago.  If it is true that we only life once, I want to make every moment count!!!   Joan   

  2. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    I jokingly tell people I have terminal post traumatic stress syndrome and function 15/5 which is partially true but the one thing that saves me is that while I don’t trust people the way I used to I love people. And so I live by the “smile a day” rule. Every day I smile at a stranger. And always get a smile back. And suddenly, well, the blues are gone.

    It’s good at times to disconnect. But if we disconnect entirely it’s not good and all of us need to mindful of that.  As a psychologist told me once, it’s important to focus on spiraling up rather than spiraling down. Even if it’s just smiling at a stranger, we have to stay connected with the world. And it’s important to take note when you are spiraling down.  And call a psychiatrist. Five years ago I began having panic attacks.   Two friends, both psychologists, told me I needed to go on anti-anxiety medicine. I couldn’t get into see a psychiatrist so I went to see an internist who realized the panic attacks were in fact malignant hypertensive attacks.  And I needed to go on Norvasc. Not an anti-anxiety medicine. When I finally did talk to a psychiatirst, he explained labile hypertension and how in my case a panic attack can in turn cause a malignant hypertensive attack. And agreed with me that what was causing the panic attacks was my having disconnected and more importantly felt I had been disconnected which happens quite frequently to stalking victims and other victims who find themselves dealing with a civi and criminal justic system that usually revictimizes them.  The smile a day makes me feel good. But also keeps me connected. And, more importantly, makes me feel connected.

    • avatar Deirdre Cerasa says:

      Baby Snooks, I am truly sorry that you have had to endure this kind of horror. Being stalked must be frightening enough but to also have to deal with the fact that stalking victims are usually revictimized by the justice system supposed to protect and defend them is horrifying. I love that you smile at a stranger every day. I do as well because my mother always said it was a lovely thing to do. So I am smiling at you today, even though technically we aren’t strangers. Hope today is a good day.
      Deirdre

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        It’s not just stalking victims but all victims of what are known as “interpersonal crimes” in which the “personal” seems to inevitably result in a dismissive attitude towards the victim as many victims of domestic abuse/violence and sexual assault/rape know all too well.  We become “guilty victims” in many eyes. We should have done this, we should n’t have done that. Many victims of sexual assault/rape are still queestioned about what they were wearing and what they said to the man who sexually assaulted or raped them. Which is to ask a victim if perhaps they asked for it.  Appalling but that is trhe reality of our civil and criminal justice system.  Many victims are treated as if they are the criminal. First by law enforcement, then by prosecutors, then by criminal defense attorneys.  And children sometimes find themselves up against the same system. I highly recommend people read a book titled And Justice for Some by Wendy Murphy who prosecuted child abuse and child molestation cases for years and became an advocate for children and women who are up against a system that literally pits them as victims against the victmizer. Most people are shocked by the book. Most cannot believe it. But it is the reality.

      • avatar Deirdre Cerasa says:

        I have read Wendy Murphy’s book. I was as you stated shocked. But I did believe and do believe. I am most fortunate not to have been victimized in this way; but I have had two wonderful friends who have been and I believe. I have willingly and forcefully testified in court for both. And in my opinion any so called human being who would take advantage of a woman or child simply because it can be done does not deserve the sympathy or concern of society. There is no excuse of any kind that could be presented to me that would make a difference. I think it is one of the few times when I absolutely will not see both sides of an issue.

  3. avatar calgal says:

    Baby Snooks, I hope you count your commenting on WoW as connecting. I certainly feel connected to you after reading many of your posts. I don’t usually post back, but I’m nodding at my computer screen and thanking you for speaking out, even on those rare occasions when I don’t agree with you.

    Another group of victims that get cut off and disconnected are victims of domestic abuse. The first thing the abuser does is to isolate the victim so she (usually a ‘she’) can’t do a reality check on the nonsense the abuser is dishing out. It’s very hard to separate ‘odd’ from ‘abnormal’ unless you have people you can discuss things with. Fight for connection. If it’s denied you, take that itself as a sign of abuse and get out. It was connecting with a small needlework group that saved my sanity and freed me from years of abuse.

    I am a person who is easily overwhelmed by in-person contact. I like my extensive time alone. But I do recognize that I must make the effort to stay connected, especially when the blues start. That’s how I turn the down spiral into up.

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      Nothing heals the heart or soothes the soul better than kindred spirits and one of the nice things about the intenet is the connection it allows us with others who have “been there, done that.”  And, yes, I do think of wowOwow as a connection with kindred spirits. And beneath the growling and howling I do try so send everyone a smile. Even when we disagree with each other we are part of this thing called wowOwow.  Each of us part of the wow. Strangers all. And yet very much connected.

      Joan Larsen always shares a smile for all us strangers. Hope she knows we all smile back. She helps up “spiral upward.”  By reminding us that we do survive. And go on.

      • avatar Joan Larsen says:

        Baby Snooks .  .  . Even though we are not up-close-and-personal-friends, I find myself understanding and feeling quite close always — through all the ups and downs we share when life has thrown us a low blow or a good laugh — with all of the regulars who have become a big part of our daily lives.  We all lead busy lives.  .  . and so it is quite telling that we actually FIND TIME to share our thoughts and be there for others.  It is a good feeling to feel safe and secure and willing to share the most private of thoughts. 

        Thank you for your kind words, Snooks, and know you are cared about as well.  Joan

  4. avatar KarenR says:

    In these parts those behaviors are more likely to be post-stress rewards for actually getting through sh*t in one piece…

  5. avatar Anyeth says:

    I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with nearly everything on this list because context is everything. In the general, the many demands on women promote a self-sacrificing attitude and the occasional indulgence is something to look forward to. The key word being occasional, but sometimes one needs to cut themselves a little slack and accept that they are only human, not Wonder Woman. If one can’t accept she is not Wonder Woman, then she has far bigger issues that the doldrums.
    There’s a strong correlation between stress levels and depression. On that note, if connecting with others is stressing someone out, a reprieve from people is definitely in order to let one de-stress and recharge. As much as I love my friends and family, I have enough on my plate without being the sounding board for all their problems. It’s called boundaries and if a loved one is being sufficiently obtuse as to not be aware of their effect on others, then silencing the phone is a valid (if slightly passive-aggressive) way to get the message across.
    As far as anger is concerned, women generally internalize their aggression to the point that it inhibits assertiveness. There’s a big difference between angry and so p***ed off that you can’t see straight. Sometimes one needs to call the offending party out on the carpet and let them have it instead of letting it go. Better to have one well-timed argument than storing up ammunition for future frustrations.
    I do agree that getting dressed can help shake off the cobwebs but there needs to be a context. I don’t see anything wrong with a weekend in pj’s but if one is feeling so down that they can’t switch gears to take up responsibilities, then again, there are bigger issues than indulging in a little sloth.
    Alcohol use is a personal choice and if one tolerates it well, I see nothing wrong with moderate, occasional consumption of 1 or 2 drinks to unwind after a particularly stressful circumstance. Getting three sheets to the wind or dependent on alcohol is another story.
    The suggestions are too dependent on context to be generalized and, when applied in an inappropriate context, can do more harm than good.