Get Out of a Bad Mood: 3 Science-Based Strategies That Really WorkBy Derrick Carpenter, MAPP
We’ve all been there. You’ve got a laundry list of tasks to finish for the afternoon or you’re starting to get ready for an evening out with friends, but you just can’t shake your bad mood enough to get yourself moving. You're in a funk. And the more you sit around being unproductive, the worse you feel. It's a vicious cycle. What you need is a quick fix to lift your mood so you can feel like yourself again.
But before we talk about how to feel better, let’s hit the pause button for a moment. When you catch yourself feeling moody, a helpful initial step is to take a moment to reflect on what’s causing you to feel what you’re feeling. Our emotions are often an outward sign of what’s going on for us internally, and sometimes, the internal stuff justifies the bad mood. If you catch yourself feeling irritated today, maybe it’s because your sister recently offered some unwanted critical feedback. Or you’re feeling guilty for bailing on a friend the other day. Whatever it is that’s going on for you, recognize what might be causing your mood and accept that these emotions may be serving a purpose. Your irritation could be a sign that your big sis is right and you know you need to make a change. And guilt can motivate us to take steps to repair relationships we feel we’ve neglected. Embrace those emotions and take the action you know you need to take.
There are other times, however, when bad moods pop up from nowhere. Maybe you waited too long to eat lunch or woke up today feeling grumpy. If you need to shake it off, here are three powerful ways to turn your bad mood around.
Focus on Someone Else
A bad mood usually forces us to become overly focused on ourselves. Shifting our attention to others can trick our minds into forgetting our own little world, as we remember everyone else has their ups and downs too. Dacher Keltner, psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley and author of Born To Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, borrows the word jen from Confucius to describe the extent to which we bring out the best in other people and avoid bringing them down. Individuals with a high jen ratio are more likely to commit an act of kindness and compassion and less likely to use a derogatory remark than someone with a low jen ratio. And research by Sonja Lyubomirsky has shown that performing altruistic acts for others reliably increases positive emotions. So help a neighbor. Offer to buy a cup of coffee to the elderly man in line behind you. Take time to really listen to a friend’s problem and help them see the way through. Building them up will lift your mood up.
Get Yourself Moving
Psychologist Robert Thayer and colleagues identified a number a strategies people use to self-regulate their moods. Physical activity and exercise, while not the most popular, proved to be the most effective. John J. Ratey, M.D., author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, argues that we evolved to move, and the health of our brains—and the moods our brains experience—rely on physical activity to stay healthy. Since it's hard to motivate ourselves to head out for a long run when we're in a bad mood, focus on small steps. Watch an aerobic video and commit to the first five minutes. Or put your shoes on and just walk. The effects of exercise can happen so quickly that you might decide to keep going once you’ve started. A bonus technique: move outside. Research by Richard Ryan and colleagues shows that being in nature significant increases our sense of vitality.
Think More Like An Optimist
In his book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman discusses the thinking styles that differentiate optimists from pessimists. When an adverse event happens, like receiving an unexpected bill in the mail, pessimists are likely to think of it as being permanent and pervasive. In other words, they say to themselves, “I’m always going to be behind on bills and my life sucks.” Optimists, on the other hand, are more likely to describe the event as temporary and to compartmentalize it. An optimist would say, “I’ll have to cut back for the next month to pay this off, but it will be OK, and at least I’m great at what I do for a living.” If your bad mood stems from a challenge or obstacle you’re dealing with, try to focus on the control you do have to change it, and be realistic about how much of your life it affects. And if all else fails, smile. It sounds almost too easy, but research by Robert Zajonc shows that the simple act of smiling can improve your mood. For the greatest effect, give yourself a big authentic smile by finding something that genuinely makes you laugh.
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Derrick Carpenter, MAPP, coaches individuals on living engaged and inspired lives, runs experiential corporate leadership programs, and trains US Army personnel on resilience. He's researched what makes people great in psychology labs at Harvard, Yale, and UPenn, where he received his Master of Applied Positive Psychology.
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