Finding happiness: 5 happiness boosters that actually do more harm than good.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 5 happiness boosters that actually do more harm than good.

Everyone has a few tricks for beating the blues – things you do when you’re feeling down to try to boost your mood. 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 few beers…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. For example, I feel very happy about having given up fake food. 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.

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. Expressing 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 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 stay calm.

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.

Have you ever tried to cheer yourself up using a strategy that just made you feel worse, in the end? Or what are more effective ways to beat the blues?

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Interested in starting your own Happiness Project? If you’d like to take a look at my Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

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  • Ann

    I too love love love kids books!!
    My favorites include Gone Away Lake and Return To Gone Away as well as the Melendy series by Elizabeth Enright;
    A Little Princess – I have read it countless times
    The Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene – about a girl who befriends a German POW who was in a prison camp in the South (during WW II) and escapes, very powerful
    The Famous Five series by Enid Blyton
    The Egypt Game
    Hitty: The First Hundred Years
    Caddie Woodlawn
    There are too many to list! I think I will have to start a kid lit group!

  • Catherine Gardner

    I was diagnose one year ago with Rheumatoid arthritis after moving to the place we’d always wanted to retire in. After spending 3 months in bed unable to get up, I was finally diagnosed and given meds to help me walk and dress myself and function again. I swore I would never lay around and feel sorry for myself again. Each morning I’m up, in my swimming suit and heading to the community pool, no matter how cold it is outside or how miserable I feel on the inside. Once I’m in the pool, the rest of the day is GREAT. Positive thinking rather than feeling sorry for yourself is the only true medicine there is.

  • Addy

    Sometimes it feels really good to vent about a frustrating co-worker or a bad meeting to my husband at the end of the day. Then I realized when I’m done, I don’t feel better but actually feel worse for spending so much time dwelling on it rather than finding ways to address the problem, and for wasting what little time my husband and I have to sit and talk on such meaningless stuff. Instead, I talk about the good stuff, and if I can’t find a way to improve the situation, I’ll ask my husband for advice, which is a much more positive and constructive way of dealing with the frustration.

  • Kim

    I agree that staying in your pajamas all day doesn’t boost happiness, at least in my case. I’m a postgrad student and my classes start in the afternoon, but I dress up as early as 8AM and leave home to study someplace else because I want to be always on the go. I don’t like to feel that the rest of the world is moving to and from work, while I’m left all alone in my pajamas.

  • S. Ramsey

    My I will feel better if sounds something like this;if I only had a day to myself. Sounds good in theory but in reality what I have experienced when I do have a day to myself is an unproductive,sit around in my jammies,guess I’ll go eat worms outcome. Not to mention that all the things you should be doing are sucking the life out of you like a vampire and not even by a really hot vampire like say, Edward. That was just a joke. I don’t even like those movies. Joking aside I have found that my happiest days involve,structure,goals,work,relationships and sometimes play.

  • Mimi

    I’m in my pjs all day and feel shameful for it! Good advice.

  • Susan

    I can SO speak to #5! I work at home as a production typist and in the last few months the “jammie days” have turned into jammie daze! I’ve realized I actually think more clearly and am more productive when I’m dressed and, as you say, ready for whatever the day brings even if it’s “just” another work day. 2012 is my year to get dressed every day…also leaving the house every day is good, ahem. Thanks for these tips. So happiness can sometimes be subverted by “fun stuff” – who knew!

  • Cici Quick

    I will unfortunately have to disagree with the approach described with number 4, expressing your negative emotions, only in the case that I truly know myself.
    At the ripe age of 29 (I still declare my childhood at this age, considering my sense of “growing up” is nonexistent), I have had many heated arguements and wallowing negative emotions, as has everyone else. As a young girl I was never argumentative, confrontational about my opinions, or challenging in anyway. On the same token, I never vocalized myself and swelled into a very angry, tormented person. My underlying anger issues peaked about four years ago. I became violent with mood swings, quick to snap, harsh with words, and every shade of abrasive that my soul could muster. I wanted to spread my hell.
    After a few years of being on the brink of physical violence with anyone that dare confront me, something hit me…I had to let this out, whatever it was, that was killing me inside. I had to relieve my negativity.
    So unlike my childhood self, if I had an issue, I addressed it immediately. I vocalized it to anyone within earshot, a verbal explosion of sorts that was almost like a stream of consciousness prose. This was not the correct approach even though at the end of it, I felt so much better. I had come upon something for myself, while those around me were undoubtedly assaulted and “negativized” with my beligerent rants.
    Over time, this changed at a snail like pace. Instead of unloading on anyone with brainwaves, I went through friends like water, but no one wanted to hear my woes. I tried therapy…anger management…a diary…prescription medications…meditation…deep breathing…yoga. There wasn’t any primal scream workshops in my area, which was a bummer. Nothing worked. Letting go by staying calm was NOT part of my genetic makeup. It was almost as if I were addicted to anger.
    I figured it out by finally trying to lose weight. Being overweight was another reason why I was miserable, so I decided to at least take charge of something I knew I could control if my anger was stubborn to subside. The first bout of kick boxing cardio I did that week was my breakthrough. I kicked as hard as I could, I riled in my anger and actually said the things I wished I had always said, and then I literally screamed the last 15 minutes of the workout. I visualized my anger, whether it was in the form of a person or past trauma. And after the most amazing 45 minutes of my life, I stood in a puddle of my own sweat and cried for a half hour. I had finally found my relief. And that night for the first time in seven years, I slept eight hours peacefully instead of my usual three. It was as if a fury had been unleashed from a cage and the remnants left behind were that of a fluffy soft kitten purring and curled up into a ball.
    I still to this day cannot let go (of anything) unless I do some sort of extreme exercise. I must let it out or it will fester inside of me. Most of my exercise sessions are now filled with me smiling, laughing, and having a good time because I’m so happy to just be alive. Yes, I can say I’m happy now. Not because I am 45 pounds lighter. Or because of the sound proofing in my new exercise room (lets just say the neighbors are appreciative). It’s because I have found my exhaultation, my negative catharsis, which has made me a lighter person not only for myself but for those around me. It’s been a hard road, and every avenue has the appearance of conjestion. But…at least I have my road, with it’s twists and turns. And that’s a lot to be happy about.

  • Jennifer Wilson

    I have to disagree with the pajama thing. I love it when me and my youngest daughter get a day to ourselves and get to stay in our pj’s, have a charmed marathon, and eat doritos!! However, I wouldn’t do it everyday but on those days I can, I love it!

  • happybelly

    Cici Quick- your story is so amazing and inspiring. I believe in the importance of feeling exactly what we’re feeling in the moment, and know that the times that I did not do that resulted in manic depressive behavior. Some people think you can “control” your mood- I don’t think that’s true. I think we can control our attitude and how we deal with it- but we can’t actually control our emotions and the things that trigger us. So congratulations on finding your salvation! To anybody else interested in ways to experience your emotions and party with them (rather than suppress them), google Josh Pais and committed impulse. It’s really weird work, but it totally saved my life. It’s not about dwelling in negative space- it’s about allowing whatever comes up to move through you.