7 Practical Ways to Boost Your Mood
How is the “pursuit of happiness” going for you? As it turns out, the more you try to “pursue” happiness, the more it eludes you. Happiness is a feeling; emotions, by their very nature, are transitory.
That’s one reason I’ve always preferred the idea of joy over happiness. Joy can be a feeling, but it is also a state of mind and a practice, much like gratitude, that you can seek and find even in your darkest moments. In her book, Joyful, author Ingrid Fetell Lee unpacks the neuroscience and psychology behind why certain physical things lift your spirits. Some examples: round shapes, versus angular ones, communicate comfort; color is a sign of health and life. And of course, many physical actions and activities (such as deep breathing and touch) affect your hormone levels and influence your mood. Small physical things, when you’re mindful of them, can add up to big changes in how you feel.
There’s nothing wrong with feeling sad or low now and again. I hate it when I feel pressured to “cheer up” against my will! There’s no inherent moral uprightness in being happy or positive all the time. Yet, sometimes you can get stuck in a downward spiral. Your emotions affect your physical and mental health, your ability to think, and how you communicate. You don’t have to stay stuck. If you’re looking for a way to boost your mood, here are some proven methods:
1. Find Life.
Right now, you may still be under a shelter-in-place order due to the COVID-19 pandemic, like me. Talk of disease and death meets you at every turn. The news seems even more depressing than usual. In times like these, finding and celebrating life can be the biggest boost of all.
It’s easy to do: Notice living things. They’re everywhere! Plants, trees, birds, insects, and wildlife all put life on display. I have been buying flowers, both for my vases and my garden, like it’s going out of style. Plant a garden. Buy a houseplant. Get a pet. Taking a walk or a scenic drive can boost your mood, too. My family has also enjoyed watching live webcams and nature shows while we’re stuck at home.
Fellow human beings are perhaps the most meaningful sign of life, and currently you might feel horribly deprived. On a video call recently, one participant mentioned that she had not touched another human being for 30 days. That’s not at all uncommon if you live alone. Contact your friends, even if (especially if) you don’t think you have the energy. It will do you both good. Make your brief interactions count: smile and make eye contact with people whenever possible. They can tell you’re smiling behind a mask! That nonverbal “contact” goes a long way.
2. Find Light.
In the northern hemisphere, our days are lengthening and that helps a lot! Regardless of where you live, acknowledging and seeking the boost that comes from light will help you get through the day. Turn on the lights. Open the windows. Get outside, even if it’s just to walk to the mailbox. Consider buying full spectrum light bulbs or other forms of light therapy. If you’re at home all day on a computer, it’s easy for your home to turn into a cave. Do yourself a favor and turn on the lights.
Move, literally or metaphorically. When you’re feeling stuck, almost any kind of change or movement can help. Work out, go for a walk, put on your favorite tunes and dance or play air guitar, wrestle with your kids, do some yoga or even just a few deep knee bends. Shake yourself up. As blogger John Gorman said, “What does sadness look like? It looks motionless.” You can shift your mood by moving your body.
Sometimes, simply changing things up works. Try something new. Anything! My daughters and I have been going for walks in different neighborhoods just to see “new” landscaping. It helps! Rearrange part of your home or change your phone’s lock screen picture. Depending on how you feel, you may need to start SMALL. But small changes can lead to a big boost.
4. Treat Your Senses.
If you’re like me, you go straight to taste when you’re feeling down: chocolate, cheese, crusty bread. Yum! And those can give you a bit of a lift. But are you actually tasting that food or just putting it in your mouth? Those aren’t the same activities. To get the boost, savor every bite.
And don’t forget all your other senses. Listen to the birds sing, the wind in the trees, the sound of the rain on the roof, or even the sound of silence. Actually stop and smell the roses. Find pops of color and beauty to feast your eyes on. Give yourself a massage (a tennis ball works great!), wear clothes that feel good, stretch.
Your senses ground you in your body and in the present moment. They give the thoughts swirling around in your head a wider context. And they provide pleasure! Your senses are always available to you. If you’re feeling low, choose one to enjoy.
5. Create Order.
I’m not a particularly neat and tidy person (ask my husband), but all human beings get a joy “hit” from harmony, structure, symmetry, and order. If clutter has started to pile up in your home or office space, overcome the inertia and tidy up. It doesn’t have to be magazine-cover worthy. Throw out the trash, straighten up the piles, organize a few things. It does feel fresh and new afterwards, and reduces stress. If you’re feeling ambitious (this is not me), then go ahead and label or color code or alphabetize… but even just a little straightening up can go a long way to improving your mood. It gives you a sense of control, something that might be in short supply when in crisis mode.
6. Visit the Past or Future.
In general, I suggest being IN the present moment. Most of these seven tips get you out of your head and into your body, your surroundings, and your relationships; they help you be fully present and put whatever is dragging you down into the larger context of your life. Yet you can also get a boost from taking a trip down memory lane or planning for the future.
Fond memories hold great meaning. This is why we gather after the loss of a loved one to share memories. When my grandmother died last month, all us cousins shared stories and photos and lyrics to her lullabies over chat and group video calls. Those memories brought comfort and smiles. You don’t need to lose someone to reminisce, however. Those memories are available to you anytime. Remember the things that make you smile!
Planning a fun future event also boosts your mood. This is particularly hard right now when the future is so uncertain and everything is closed. Instead of making plans, it feels like we’re doing nothing but canceling them! The kids don’t get to go to camp this year, my husband and I scrapped our anniversary trip, and we also had to cancel our visit to England with friends later in the year.
There are still things to look forward to, however. Something as small as a backyard bonfire with s’mores is now an EVENT. And I will milk it for all it’s worth! We’ve looked at vacation homes for when we ARE able to get away. And backyard camping… here we come! Create your own things to look forward to.
Both looking back and looking forward remind you that the present situation is not eternal. This is not how it always has been, nor how it always will be.
It can be hard to find things to celebrate when you’re down in the dumps, yet even small celebrations lift your spirits. A celebration doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive or include any other people. The new puppy didn’t pee on the carpet all day? Celebrate with extra playtime. Finished the workday? Celebrate by lighting a candle or watching something that makes you laugh. First sunny day in awhile? Celebrate by having your lunch or coffee outside.
Food and alcohol are easy ways to turn the mundane into a celebration, yet they aren’t necessary. In fact, they can sometimes backfire—alcohol is a depressant, after all—so look for other ways you can liven things up frequently and repeatedly without the negative side effects. That said, I’ve had a few Zoom “happy hours” and even a birthday morning “mimosa hour” with friends recently and they have been fun! There’s nothing wrong with food and drink, just remember that the point is not to feel worse, but to feel better.
These practices are accessible all day, every day. That’s the magic. You don’t reap the benefits automatically, however. Start noticing uplifting moments before they slip past and drink them in. Let them nourish you.
If you’re feeling stuck, lost, sad, or afraid, that’s okay. Everyone experiences those feelings at times, and now more than ever. Acknowledge and accept them. They are what they are.
Feelings can and do change, though. When you are ready for a change, these suggestions can help ground you in real life, which always contains some elements of joy, no matter what.