One common happiness question is: How do you give yourself a boost? If you’re feeling anxious, blue, angry, scared—what can you do to soothe yourself?
One suggestion: find a “comfort food” for your mind. Know what you can do with your brain that will give yourself a comforting break from your worries, at least for a little while. By doing so, you’ll re-charge your battery, find it easier to stay calm and cheerful, find it easier to take action to remedy your situation—and you’ll sleep better. But this is easier said than done.
We all suffer from “negativity bias,” that is, we react to the bad more strongly and persistently than to the comparable good. (What do you remember better, a compliment or a criticism?) Research shows one consequence of negativity bias is that when people’s thoughts wander, they tend to begin to brood. Anxious or angry thoughts capture our attention more effectively than happier thoughts.
So if you’re feeling blue, look for ways to pull your mind away from your worries onto positive topics. One great way is to watch a movie—not something upsetting!—or a favorite TV show. Don’t muddy the experience by trying to multitask; if you’re paying bills or folding laundry, you’re not going to get the benefit of taking a break from your own thoughts to watch Shrek. Give yourself a proper vacation: sit down and enjoy what you’re doing.
My favorite activity is reading, and when I really need comfort food for my mind, I read children’s literature. I always re-read, too. When I’m upset, I want the comfort of knowing that I’ll love the book and that I won’t be upset by some unexpected plot twist. (For instance, I can’t bear any plot that includes unjust accusation. You wouldn’t believe how often unjust accusation pops up in books, movies, plays, and TV.) Just this weekend, I re-read Philip Pullman’s masterpiece, The Golden Compass, for the tenth or eleventh time, and it made me so happy.
I do find that some activities that are usually happiness-inducing don’t work very well when I’m preoccupied with bad thoughts. Listening to music, for example, is generally an extremely effective way to boost mood, but I find it too easy to start thinking about my worries when I’m listening; others might not have this problem. Similarly, although going for a walk usually cheers me up, it also gives me an excellent opportunity to brood if I’m in a brooding mood.
Cooking, cleaning, playing with your kids, playing video games, playing basketball—different people find different solutions. If you can find an activity that gives you exercise, gets you outside, or brings you in contact with other people, that’s especially effective.
So if you’re feeling overwhelmed, give yourself some mental comfort food. By giving yourself a break and a bit of comfort, you’ll make yourself feel better, and you’ll also equip yourself to deal more effectively with tough situations.
What mental comfort food works for you?
I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in—no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.
Gretchen Rubin is the author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller, The Happiness Project—an account of the year she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific studies, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier. On her popular blog, The Happiness Project, she reports on her daily adventures in the pursuit of happiness. Gretchen is also on Facebook and Twitter.