8 Tips for Feeling Happier During an Unhappy Time

Gretchen Rubin on creating your own personal happiness

At some points in life, it’s not possible — or at least not easy — to feel happy. However, even then, it’s sometimes possible to feel happier. By taking whatever steps you can manage to give yourself whatever happiness boost is possible, you give yourself a deeper reservoir to deal with your happiness challenge. Here are some strategies to consider:

1. Remind yourself of reasons to be grateful. When things look really dark, it’s hard to feel grateful, but remembering what’s good in your life can help put problems into perspective. I have a friend who recently suffered a big disappointment at work. She said to me, “As long as my family is healthy, I can’t get too upset about anything.” This may sound like hackneyed advice, but it’s really true.

2. Remember your body. Take a twenty-minute walk outside to boost your energy and dissolve stress. Don’t let yourself get too hungry. Get enough sleep. Manage pain. When you’re anxious, it’s easy to stay up late and eat ice cream — and that’s going to make you feel worse in the long run. It’s very tempting to run yourself ragged trying to deal with a crisis, but in the long run, you just wear yourself out.

3. Do something fun. Temporarily distract yourself from the stress, and re-charge your battery, with an enjoyable activity. Watching a funny movie is a reliable way to give yourself a pleasant break, and listening to your favorite music is one of the quickest ways to change your mood. When my older daughter was in the intensive-care unit as a newborn, my husband dragged me off to a movie one afternoon — and that few hours of distraction made me much better able to cope with the situation. Be careful, however, not to “treat” yourself by doing something that’s eventually going to make you feel worse (taking up smoking again, drinking too much, indulging in retail therapy). My comfort-food activity is reading children’s literature.

4. Take action. If you’re in a bad situation, take steps to bring about change. If you’re having trouble with your new boss, you could decide to try to transfer. Or you could change your behavior. Or you could find ways to pay less attention to your boss. Ask yourself, “What exactly is the problem?” It’s astounding to me that often, when I take time to identify a problem exactly, a possible solution presents itself.

5. Look for meaning. Re-frame an event to see the positive along with the negative. Maybe getting fired will give you the push you need to move to the city where you’ve always wanted to live. Maybe your illness has strengthened your relationships with your family. You don’t need to be thankful that something bad has happened, but you can try to find positive consequences even in a catastrophic event.

6. Connect with friends and family. Strong relationships are a KEY to happiness, so fight the impulse to isolate yourself. Show up. Make plans. Ask for help, offer your help to others. Or just have some fun (see #3) and forget your troubles for a while.

7. Make something better. If something in your life has gotten worse, try to make something else better – and it doesn’t have to be something important. Clean a closet. Organize your photographs. Work in the yard.

8. Act toward other people the way you wish they’d act toward you. If you wish your friends would help you find someone to date, see if you can fix up a friend. If you wish people would help you find a job, see if you can help someone else find a job. If you can’t think of a way to help someone you know, do something generous in a more impersonal way. For instance: commit to being an organ donor! When you’re feeling very low, it can be hard to muster the energy to help someone else, but you’ll be amazed at how much better you feel. Do good, feel good; it really works.

What other strategies have you used to make yourself happier during an unhappy time?

Editor’s Note: Gretchen Rubin is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Happiness Project.  Each Wednesday is tip day on her blog.

10 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Maizie James says:

    It’s difficult to remain optimistic when coping with numerable personal problems.  What makes it more difficult is that we can’t escape being bombarded with instant news coverage of upsetting national and international crisis.  Tonight for example, I watched with utter astonishment the coverage of the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the first amendment rights of the nuts who picket military funerals.
    Even though my brain understands that freedom of speech has played a roll in the Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya protests, I remain confounded.  Then later on, I found the courage to call and offer support to  a very good friend whose five year old granddaughter has inoperable cancer growing on her brain stem.  Thankfully, this brave little girl was accepted at St. Jude’ in Memphis, and is undergoing treatment. THANK YOU MARGO for continuing your father’s legacy.
    I’d like to say I’m happy and thankful for my blessing.  Yet, it becomes overwhelming when in the midst of coping with multiple crisis to find something to laugh about.
    Still, I know that I am very fortunate.  And, no matter the challenges, disappointment, heartache, and tragedies I face, there are so many individuals – especially in poor countries, who do not have the options to make their lives a bit more tolerable.
    Ms Rubin, thank you for reminding me that’s it’s possible to find way to be happy during unhappy times.

  2. avatar Bella Mia says:

    We got rid of cable, and now only use DVD’s for entertainment or Downloads from the Apple Store.  I can choose to read the news or not.  We had a recently military funeral here in NJ and Westboro Wackos made an effort to show up but were kept at such a great distance by the efforts of the crowd that they gave up and left early.
    I challenge my children to make me laugh.  I pet the dog.  I just finished watching the Temple Grandin Movie and I feel amazing now, so grateful for her contribution.

    • avatar Sharon Belko says:

      Bella – just this minute popping popcorn and preparing to settle down with Temple – so glad to read your review and will be grateful for the joy she brings to my heart!

  3. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    There is no way any of us are going to get through life without suffering crushing blows, often coming out of nowhere and knocking us flat, making us feel we have been run over by a steamroller.  They seem to affect not just part of life – but every part of our lives while it is happening.  I have come to think of it as life’s plan .   .   . and only long after, do we discover that we have learned much from this time and grown from it, finding we are now in a position to be there for others in a totally meaningful way. 

    However, in the really bad times, the traumatic times, as I have looked back on them, I don’t remember finding the word “happier” in my vocabulary.  “Happier” to me only comes after the shock of the bad times and its resolution have passed.  Sometimes long past — for we humans, there is rarely an instant turn-around.

    I have found though – when bad things happen – I do have determination to make it better. . or at least TRY.  It is unwise to wallow.  Instead, you are devising ways to move forward quickly and it keeps your mind active.  Years ago, I was told I had cancer and I had to move fast.
    With my life on the line I wanted the best odds.  All of us would.  Within hours, I had called the National Cancer Institute – one of our government’s proudest entities I would say – and a wonderful person, with all the patience in the world, heard me out, gave me information that would ultimately save my life.  Until then, I had no idea that there were doctors who were specialists within the oncology field.  In a single day, I was connected with the very best specialist – a man who gave me a sense of peace and who I feel saved me.  Since that experience, my newfound expertise has been shared with others who have been given shocking news — with wonderful  results.

    So while your question pertained to strategies that could be used when bad news hits, I have found the best thing to do is to inform yourself on your options:  the “where do I go from here?” forward moving path.  In bad times, there is comfort (instead of happiness I think) in knowing that you have done your very best – for yourself or another. 

    • avatar mary burdt says:

      Dear Joan,  As you know, my husband of 52 years passed away on January 27.  I am still in shock and deeply sad.  He was my everything and I miss him terribly.  However, He loved me very much and I know, for sure, he would want me to “try” to be happy again.  So, I will.  One breath at a time.  I have a great daughter and a 5 yr. old grandson to die for.  Many friends who take care of me, not physically, but from the heart.
      I did not know about your struggle with cancer but am so delighted to hear you are doing well. Since joining this site almost two years ago, I have enjoyed your kind words and thoughtful prose.  When I see you have posted, a big smile paints my face.  Thank you for always taking the high road.  You are an inspiration to me.  Mary

      • avatar Joan Larsen says:

        Mary . . . as I have learned so well, there is no time frame on grief and you must go with the flow.  Of course, our loving partner would like us to become happy again and in our own ways, we probably will.  However, most of us find that there is a big hunk of our heart missing and will remain so.  .  . and so it is meant to be when you have had love like no other over a length of time. 

        No one should tell us that there is a rush to move on with our lives.  Something within us will notice small changes that say we have taken the first baby steps on our own.  In the meantime, it is so important that those close to us understand and gather us close, giving us love and more than that — understanding.  Sooner or later, we will all experience grief and sadness — and most of us – if we live long enough – we experience the loss of those we love more and more often. 

        We move on.  But in our own time.  We find that those we cared about and loved will always have that place in our hearts.  We find that at the most unexpected times, tears well and memories surface.  It tells us we care still for these people were the special ones in our life.

        My heart goes out to you as your loss is so great.  But we must never close in, never give up on what life has ahead for us IF we have our eyes wide open and once again our heart opening to what tomorrow will bring.

        Thank you for your kind words, Mary — as always, you have made my day.  I will always be thinking of you — with love.

  4. avatar The Flip Side of Life says:

    I always remind myself of a great book: Man’s Search For Meaning by Victor Frankl. The ultimate message I received from this book was that in any given situation, no matter how dire it seems we ALWAYS get to choose how we react to it.
    Sometimes our unhappiness comes from feeling we have no choice. A great way to see the choices available to us is, as Gretchen says, find gratitude. It’s there.

  5. avatar Grace OMalley says:

    Sometimes, it’s more interesting to read Joan Larsen’s responses, than the actual articles, although I must say I have enjoyed Gretchen Rubin’s contributions so much.  Your article came at a time when I needed it most.

  6. avatar Vicki Sarris says:

    My favorite things to do when I am feeling “down in the dumps”:
    1.  Journaling.  I write down one good thing that happened or one blessing that I received that day.  It can start out small, and challenging to find something to write, but grows surprisingly quickly as your viewpoint changes and you keep seeing more and more blessings – or they come to you. 
    2.  Get outside.  Even in bad weather – the sunlight is good for pineal gland and seratonin.  There are full spectrum visors that are good for SAD – seasonal disorder relating to little natural light.  Just getting outside can be uplifting itself.
    3.  Walking – exercise.  It works out the kinks and gets your energy going.  Inside or outside doesn’t matter, just the workout itself gets rid of stress and opens up new ideas and is great for clearing the mind. 

    But I have to kick myself to get out the door….find someone to kick you.