Today, I had a bad day. It was amazing: I appreciated all my good days. In fact, without bad days, we'd have no way to measure our good days. All days would be lukewarm, unremarkable.
If you want to have a bad day too, here are some psychology-backed ways to make it happen all by yourself -- no catastrophe needed:
1. Make a ton of decisions.
We have a finite, singular source of willpower every day. When faced with too many options, research repeatedly reveals that we obsess over and are less satisfied with our choices. Analysis paralysis not only makes us less effective decision makers; it makes us less happy.
Many of us have bad days because our schedule is filled with so many random and distracting to-dos. Order your day (beginning to end) and your priorities (top to bottom) according to what most matters in the long run. You may never get to the bottom of your list, but at least you will have increased your daily satisfaction.
If the productive part of my day is nearly or already over and I'm in a terrible mood, I'll put whoever I'm with in charge. I say, "I'm done making decisions today", and then they have to (get to!) pick the dinner spot, the documentary, who we invite, when we leave, what we talk about. The only rule is you have to be content with what they choose.
2. Be a jerk to yourself.
We all kick ourselves after screwing up. But being excessively hard on yourself makes your failure worse--in all ways. A series of experiments in 2012 found that self-compassion led to viewing one's personal weaknesses as more changeable. Self-compassion and self-forgiveness are also correlated with decreased rumination, less shame, fewer symptoms of depression and higher levels of wellbeing, emotional stability, good health and satisfaction.
According to one study, self-forgiveness is the ability to "abandon self-resentment in the face of one's own acknowledged objective wrong, while fostering compassion, generosity, and love toward oneself".
Here are my personal self-forgiveness steps taken from lots of research: 1) I take responsibility for what I did. 2) I stop obsessing about it. I give myself an allotted period to freak out. If I catch myself thinking about it afterward, I train my mind back to what I'm doing. 3) I remind myself that I'm human and that everyone else is human. The proper prescription? Compassion all around.
3. Check your phone constantly.
77 percent of British mobile phone users check their phones 35 or more times a day. Among students, frequent cellphone usage is correlated with increased anxiety and depression and reduced life satisfaction. In several studies, teens who relied heavily on their phones and/or social media experienced elevated levels of stress, aggression, depression and distraction as well as worse self-esteem and sleep. Social media specifically is associated with low moods and depression.
Think about all the minutes every single day you spend on your phone. Not only are these minutes unproductive; they're miserable just moments later. Find a better way to spend your time. Your day will instantly improve.
4. Blame other people.
My boss is a tyrant. This idiot in front of me. My clients are unrealistic. The waitress is too slow. These statements, and countless others, fall under the half-acronym "E.F. My Day": Excuses For My Day. We may feel temporary relief for scapegoating everyone else for feeling crappy, but research shows that this strategy soon makes us feel crappier.
One study found that people who felt a sense of control in their lives--what psychologists call an "internal locus of control"--were 66% more likely to report feeling happy and satisfied. People with perceived internal locus of control also report higher levels of life satisfaction and perform better at work than those who feel less responsibility for their lives.
When your bad day isn't your fault and you don't know who or what to blame, repeat the phrase "just happening". Your day doesn't need a reason. It can just suck. But you shouldn't blame other people for it, and you shouldn't dwell on it.
New research shows that rumination is a key contributor to depression. Teachers who ruminate report higher stress levels and burn out more frequently. Translation: dwelling on our unhappiness makes us unhappier.
This is a hard truth for me to accept because I'm an over-analyzer. Maybe you can relate? You "troubleshoot" your problems, either by fixating on them internally or talking it over, and over, with friends. But (sometimes unfortunately) life isn't an IT problem.
Of course, self-awareness can help us take charge of our emotions and careers. But next time you feel like you're doing a lot of introspection, ask yourself if you've really gained any new insight. If not, it might be time to let it be.
When I realize I'm having repetitive and/or unproductive thoughts, I drown out their noise by saying "blah blah blah" aloud or singing.
6. Try to feel better.
When we're having a bad day, most of us just want to feel better. It's an understandable human desire but an ineffective end goal.
Studies show that pursuing happiness--strangely--doesn't make us happy. According to one study, seeking happiness is actually associated with depression. Another study found that the more participants valued happiness, the more likely they were to exhibit disappointment and other negative emotions.
Instead, focus on completing enjoyable, challenging tasks. Psychology shows that finding flow--a combination of optimal challenge, skill, interest in and singular focus on an activity--increases wellbeing. If you focus on goals that are hard but doable, psychology says you might trump your funk.
7. Sit at your desk all day and don't eat.
This one sounds absurd, but so many of us do it. Because I work from home and don't have to leave the house, I often don't. If five or six p.m. rolls around and I feel lethargic and irritable, it's inevitably because I've eaten half a bowl of soup and haven't stepped outside all day. Conversely, eating consistently regulates not only our metabolism and insulin levels but also our emotional stability.
How? Our stomachs contain hormones that signal to our brains. One study summary explains, "The gut and the brain 'talk' to one another via hormones, metabolic products or direct neural connections." If you want your stomach to say nice things to your brain, fill it up regularly with nourishing, energizing food.
I know, sometimes it's just hard to get outside, hard to go on a walk, hard to hit the gym. I won't say you have to. But if you're having a bad day, you'd be ridiculous not to.
8. Stay up.
Sometimes we stay awake past our bedtimes trying to "fix" bad days. In reality, we're probably making it worse. Being productive when you're tired is like trying to have a meeting while sprinting uphill. Not to mention, insufficient sleep carries over to the next day and makes that one bad too.
Common causes include going to bed at different times, not making sleep a priority and spending time on phones or laptops right before bed. Most likely, you know what's keeping you up. Prioritize tomorrow's wellbeing and get some rest.
Okay, okay: I know no one actually wants to have a bad day. But next time you're considering one, remember all the little ways you can influence it--for better or for worse.