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.