What the Experts Say
The good news is you can turn a bad day into a good one. “Happiness is a choice,” says Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage. Even when something objectively negative happens—your star employee gives notice or you’re late to an important meeting with the CEO—it’s important to focus on the positive things that are also happening. “Studies show that when you’re positive, you’re 31% more productive, you’re 40% more likely to receive a promotion, you have 23% fewer health-related effects from stress, and your creativity rates triple,” he explains. Discontent is also contagious, adds Annie McKee, founder of the Teleos Leadership Institute and coauthor of Primal Leadership. “Your negative emotions spread like wildfire,” she says. “It’s worth changing your mood, not just to make your day more pleasant and productive but to spare those around you.” So what can you do when you’re in a downward spiral? Here are some ideas:
Pinpoint the problem
The earlier you catch your bad mood, the easier it will be to do something about it. “We have to have early warning signals that tell us that our resilience is dwindling,” says McKee. She recommends pausing regularly to check your emotional state. “Perhaps you’re being snappy with people, you’re not smiling as much, or you have a headache,” she says. It’s also important to pinpoint and name what’s going on. It’s better to say, “I’m upset because I’m behind on an important project and traffic was terrible today,” rather than the over-simplified, “I feel awful,” McKee says. Having a concrete reason for your unhappiness gives you something to work on.
Take a moment to be grateful
One of the simplest ways to focus on the positive is to think about what you’re grateful for, whether it’s your job, your kids, or the clothes on your back. “There are neuroimaging studies that show it’s almost impossible to be in a depressed state and grateful at the same time,” explains Achor. McKee agrees that gratitude is “a powerful antidote to the urgent feeling of stress and lack of control.” So as soon as you start to feel negative, short circuit your mood by asking yourself, What are three good things that are going on right now? Consider saying them out loud or writing them down. This will help you get some perspective on the bad day. Sure, you may have had a fender bender or missed an appointment, but there are other, perhaps more important, things in your life that are going well.
Another way to stop yourself from “trending negative” is to “take a single concrete action,” Achor says. Send that email that you’ve been meaning to get to or make a phone call you’ve been dreading. Even choosing a healthier snack, a piece of fruit over a candy bar, can create a positive “mental avalanche” for the rest of the day. “Your brain records a victory,” Achor explains. The effect is even stronger if the action you take benefits someone else. You might be buried in your inbox, but if you take two minutes to send an email praising or thanking someone else, you’ll actually feel like you’ve gained time.
Change your routine
If you’re feeling miserable, don’t hunker down at your desk for the rest of the day. A change of scenery often helps signal to your brain that the current mood doesn’t need to be sustained. “Drive around, take a walk, or just go to a different floor. The key is to put yourself in a different physical location,” McKee advises. And once you’re there, take a few deep breaths. “If you’re heading for or already in an amygdala hijack, you have to do something to get control of your frontal lobe and breathing does that physiologically,” she explains.
You can also do something you enjoy, like listening to music or a podcast or catching up on news. Just be careful about the content you choose! A recent study by Achor in partnership with Arianna Huffington showed that just a few minutes of consuming negative news can cause a bad day. “Try to find a news outlet that focuses on solutions. Or at least create a different ratio. If you’re going to read a negative piece, read two positive ones as well, about medical breakthroughs or someone helping others,” says Achor.
Reset realistic expectations
“Expectations can have a huge impact on mood,” says Achor. “If I expect my flight to be canceled and it’s only three hours delayed, then I’m going to be thrilled. But if I expect it to be on time and then it’s delayed, then I’m going to be upset.” A lot of bad days start when you have unrealistic expectations about what you can accomplish. If your mood is deteriorating because it’s after lunch and you feel behind, don’t despair. “You can rewrite the narrative on the day,” he says. Highlight what progress you have made. “Write down two or three things you’ve already done. You woke up, you had breakfast with your kid, you drove to work, you even wrote a checklist. That way you’re starting at 25% progress.” And then make a list of “short, attainable goals” for the rest of the day.
Learn from your bad days to prevent future ones
When you do have bad days, it’s important to reflect on them before you put them behind you. By taking note of what went wrong—and then right—you can “learn what your triggers are so you stay away from those particular stimuli or at least know how you’re likely to react if you’re triggered,” McKee says. If you’ve tried the above strategies, make a note of what works for you and what doesn’t, and “be more precise in the future in how you turn things around.” And definitely pay attention when bad days pile up. Is there something bigger going on that you need to address? Is there some broader action you need to take? “We’re seeing a movement toward higher workloads and longer work hours and there’s lots of research that shows that when people work more than 55 hours a week, engagement and happiness levels plummet,” says Achor. Consider whether you need to fundamentally rethink the way you do your job or balance your work and family life.
Principles to Remember
- Think of three things that you’re grateful for
- Consider what you’ve already accomplished even if it’s minor
- Reflect on what triggers your bad days and which tactics help to turn them around
- Believe that you are a victim of your circumstances—you choose whether to be negative or positive
- Hunker down at your desk—change scenery and take a few deep breaths
- Set unrealistic expectations for your day
Case study #1: Focus on opportunities not problems
Kate Hanley, a mindset coach and the author of A Year of Daily Calm, often helps her clients develop strategies to get out of their bad days. “People come to me because they’re feeling stuck and they’ve tried everything they know how to try,” she says.
She usually starts by asking them what triggered their negative mood. “I try to get them to pinpoint where it started to go bad,” she says. “Naming it can be really helpful.”
Then she advises her clients to “get curious” and ask a lot of questions about what is going on. Is this a one-time event or an ongoing trend? Have I felt like this before? What caused it last time? “We’ve evolved to scan for danger so once you’re in a bad mood, it can be hard to get out,” she says.
She also tries to get people to reframe problems as opportunities. If an important client meeting gets canceled, what can you do with that free hour? If a direct report doesn’t do a good job on a presentation, how can you help her learn from the situation?
Kate uses these same tactics when she’s having her own bad days. A few weeks back, she noticed she was in an awful mood around lunchtime and quickly identified the cause: two clients had canceled on her that morning. “I don’t like when my appointments get moved a lot because it screws up the rhythm of my day,” she says.
“My mind quickly made a trend out of it but I pulled back and asked myself, ‘Do clients cancel a lot or is it just today?’” With that perspective, she was able to think more positively. She also took a few moments to get out of the office and do something she enjoys—listen to music. “If you ever see me driving around in my car listening to classical, you know it’s been a crazy day.”
Case study #2: Remember it’s just one day
Darin Freitag, who manages residential and commercial projects at the general contractor RYAN Associates says that he can usually tell early on in a day when things are going wrong. “It starts when I receive a phone call from an angry client or I realize that an important project isn’t going to be done on time,” he says. Then “I’m distracted so I’m not thinking clearly and I make more mistakes, like speeding into work and getting a ticket or even backing my car into something.”
That’s when he takes a step back. “I tell myself, ‘OK, something’s going on here. I’m just not in a place where I’m going to win today.” To get himself back into the right frame of mind, his first step is to get some perspective. “I think about how this is just one day in the long haul of a career, or a project, or the business,” he explains.
He reminds himself that it’s normal to have a rough patch here and there and that he can’t solve every problem. “Like many people, I often have this grandiose idea that I’m so important that I can fix anything. But that’s just not true. And if I try to fix it all, it’s just going to get worse,” he says. So he temporarily resets his expectations for the day. “Sometimes I need to lower my standards and be more realistic,” he says.
He remembers one day when he had to give a presentation. Not only did he feel unprepared but there were also technical problems with the projector. But instead of getting frustrated, he took a deep breath and told himself, “OK, this is not going to go as well as I hoped or planned.”
Over time, he’s learned that, while he can’t stop bad things from happening, he can control how he responds to them. “I know I’m going to be miserable until I change my perspective, or accept the situation,” he explains. “I can wallow for a while but it’s not fun and it just leads to depression. I eventually realize that I’m swimming upstream and that I need to stop swimming and just float. And then usually it doesn’t take long for the situation to change.”