Some days, it’s a struggle just to make it through in one piece. We’re down, or frustrated, or angry, and happiness feels out of reach. On days like this, tiny little actions can help us feel better—and might be all we can manage. Here are some of my favorites:
Go outside. Every time I walk into my backyard, I instantly feel calmer. I don’t know if it’s the silence (why are our houses so noisy?) or some sort of ancient instinct, but it works every time. Walk on the grass in your bare feet. Watch the clouds, listen to the birds, smell the flowers.
This is especially beneficial if the sun is shining: getting sun raises your serotonin levels (one reason why some people suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, a depression/funk that sets in during winter months when days are shorter). Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood; low serotonin levels are thought to contribute to depression. The increase in serotonin happens when sunlight enters your eyes, so don’t wear sunglasses; sit or stand facing the sun (obviously, don’t stare right at it, though!). If you’re concerned about skin cancer or aging, limit your time in the sun to about 15 minutes, and do it in the morning or later afternoon when the sun is not so strong.
A great way to start your day is to go outside first thing in the morning, stand with your bare feet on the ground, and face the sun. Breathe deeply and center yourself. Early morning sunlight exposure can help you sleep better, which will definitely improve your mood. It does this by resetting your biological clock. For this benefit, go outside between 6 and 8:30 a.m., as later sunlight doesn’t have the same effect.
Put on something soft, like a cashmere wrap or super-fluffy socks, and snuggle into it.
Rock in a rocking chair. It’s so soothing!
Make a cup of something hot—tea, lemon water, hot chocolate—and hold it in both hands. Imagine love coming into your hands through the cup, then sip that love into yourself.
Eat some chocolate, especially dark chocolate. No explanation needed! (But it really works, because chocolate contains serotonin and stimulates endorphins (see below!)
Exercise—even 10 jumping jacks or running in place, if you can’t take a class or go for a walk or run. Get your blood pumping and endorphins will flow. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that block pain and produce a sense of pleasure and satisfaction. Bonus points for dancing around like a fool to some of your favorite music. (This is one of the hardest tips for me to follow—I am not a natural exerciser, and it often feels like TOO MUCH EFFORT to even get up and stretch, much less jump around or walk. But it never fails—when I move, I feel better.)
Listen to music—whatever you love. Nat King Cole calms me every time I’m feeling jagged. When I’m down, ‘80s music cheers me up—anything I can sing along with. Singing actually helps you feel better, also. Even if you think you have a terrible voice, give it a try. Singing releases endorphins, which make you feel good. It also makes you breathe more deeply, signaling your nervous system to relax and getting increased oxygen into your blood, which boosts energy. It’s even better if you sing with a group, either formally or informally; studies have shown that the social interactions and feelings of support you get from choral singing lead to increased happiness.
Look at your favorite colors. Color is energy and can actually affect our mood. My favorite colors are aqua, turquoise, cobalt, and hot pink. Looking at the blues calms me down, and looking at hot pink revs up my energy.
Take that a step further and make some art. It doesn’t matter if you have “no talent.” Draw, doodle, or paint, simply to access the joy of creating. I find coloring with crayons to be especially calming—I like to draw random shapes and color them in, so I’m not putting pressure on myself to “do it right.” The feel of the crayon or pencil or paint brush on the paper is very soothing to me.
Rub scented lotion or a few drops of essential oils into your hands and breathe in. Lavender is relaxing; peppermint boosts energy and relieves stress. I also like rose, orange, and neroli.
Read something inspiring. Maybe keep a book of poems close by, or make a notebook of quotes that you love, and open it at random. I love Mary Oliver’s poems, any book by the Buddhist monk and Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, or Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea. Another uplifting book I’ve recently discovered is Wake Up to the Joy of You by Agapi Stassinopolous.
Clean in such a way that it gets your blood pumping, like on-your-knees scrubbing the floor or tub. Not only does this give you the endorphin boost of exercise, but also the sense of accomplishment when you’re done! I find this especially useful when I’m upset. I can pour all of that energy into my work and really get results!
Pet your dog or cat. Studies show that stroking, cuddling, or even gazing into the eyes of our pet leads to a rise in our oxytocin levels. Oxytocin is the “love hormone” that is also released during hugs, sex, and breastfeeding. It reduces stress and anxiety levels while increasing feelings of relaxation, trust, and bonding. Snuggling your pet (or human!) also releases serotonin (see going outside, above).
For even more oxytocin/serotonin boost, hug someone! Good, long hugs make you feel loved--and make the person you’re hugging feel loved too! I once read a book about keeping your marriage strong which recommended multiple long hugs each day as a way to reconnect and then deepen your connection, without having to say a word. Science, people! It works.
Get a massage. Not only will this help relax your muscles so you can release tension, it will also stimulate endorphins.
Laugh! Especially on days when you feel more like crying, laughter can really help. Laughter reduces anxiety and boosts your immune system. Studies have shown it can even increase your tolerance for pain. Laughing stimulates the release of endorphins, those feel-good hormones that are also released during exercise.
Laughter is so powerful, people now do laughter therapy and laughter yoga! (http://www.laughteronlineuniversity.com/laughter-yoga/) To get yourself started, watch a funny video online, or a TV show or movie if you have more time. Some of my favorite comedies are Abbott and Costello movies, “The Inlaws,” “Airplane,” “Young Frankenstein,” “His Girl Friday,” “Best in Show,” “The Philadelphia Story,” “Some Like It Hot,” “The Producers,” “Raising Arizona,” “The Muppet Movie,” “The Princess Bride,” and “Arsenic and Old Lace.” TV shows that always get me laughing: “I Love Lucy,” “Laverne and Shirley,” “Seinfeld,” and old Monty Python episodes. What are your favorites? Make a list one day when you’re in a good mood and keep it handy for emergency laughter infusion as needed!
Or, cry! Go ahead and cry it out. Crying physically releases those feelings of tension, anger, and sadness. A good sob can clean you out and make room for positive emotions. Watching tearjerker movies can help you access those feelings if you’ve stuffed them way, way down like we tend to do. I prefer ones with a somewhat happy ending so I finish up with happy tears, like “An Affair to Remember,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Field of Dreams,” or “Sleepless in Seattle.” Classic tearjerkers are “Terms of Endearment,” “Beaches,” “Love Story,” “E.T.,” “Ghost,” “Charly,” “Steel Magnolias,” “Titanic,” and “The Notebook.” “Life Is Beautiful” is amazing in that it’s equally funny and heartwrenching; it’s especially poignant (read: full-on sobfest) for parents. What tearjerker always gets you going?
I hope that one or more of these ideas will be useful to you the next time you need a lift. What other mood-boosting activities have you tried and either loved or hated?