How to Avoid ‘Down’ Days—The Science of Feeling Good

No one has time for a “down” day and most managers won’t understand if we call in “unhappy” or “feeling blah.” We have to function as if we’re in our zone every day, exuding self-confidence; filled with energy and wisdom. Of course things don’t work that way; we all have “down days”. And worse, much of the time we’re aware we’re not functioning at peak performance and still we can’t intellectually get ourselves to a better state of mind.

It dawned on me the other day that I had been having one of those blah periods and worse had been logically telling myself to “perk up” and get out of the doldrums. Of course nothing I told myself made even the slightest bit of difference in my overall attitude. We can’t intellectualize ourselves out of negativity; it’s a feeling process instead of a thinking one.

Let’s look for a second at why we can’t just think ourselves into giddiness or cart-wheel-turning joy. In a paper by researchers at UC Santa Barbara, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, the study emphasized we have seriously underestimated our ability to change our lives. So we’ve all read enough that we know we are supposed to be able to change how we’re feeling and logically that means thinking ourselves happier or less stressed. And since we can’t, it simply compounds the aggravation. What we can do is look at some simple procedures designed to help us temporarily feel better. 

Here are some steps to quick-start a positive attitude:

Step 1:  Be open to alternative ideas. “My fingers are being pried off all I think I know. Certainty is very useful, but it can really close your mind off to the true light,” said David O. Russell, American filmmaker. Consequently consider some ideas that might seem unusual or unfamiliar; after all the old ways haven’t made the difference you’d like, and perhaps these will.

Step 2:  Change your emotional state. Think of a time when you felt like you wish you felt now—confident, relaxed, joyous (fill in the emotion)—and recreate that feeling. Einstein reminded us that imagination is more powerful than knowledge, so if we can really imagine the feeling we want and act as if we’re feeling that now, then we can start to temporarily change our attitude. It’s important to imagine what sounds we would be hearing, smells we would be smelling, etc. in order to bring that memory to life. This is standard NLP (Neuro-linguistic Programming); we are reprogramming how we are feeling now by transferring a better feeling. It really works!

Step 3:   Smile, and hold it for at least 17 seconds, repeating as often as possible. And find something to make you laugh while you’re at it. The act of laughter -- or simply enjoying some humor -- increases the release of endorphins and dopamine in the brain, which provides a sense of pleasure and reward, according to humor researcher Dr. Lee Berk. These positive and beneficial neurochemical changes, in turn, make the immune system function better. There are even changes in brain wave activity toward what's called the "gamma wave band frequency," which also amps up memory and recall. And research says that a smile and “hello” are the most beneficial in attracting customers as well, so there are multiple benefits to putting a smile on your face, whether you feel like it or not.

Step 4:  Get physical. A walk, a run, or anything that involves physical activity releases endorphins that give all of us a high. As an example, that sense of well-being, freedom and extra energy that runners often experience is even more than just endorphins. A study at the University of Montreal Hospital Research Centre shows that the "runner's high" phenomenon is also caused by dopamine, an important neurotransmitter for motivation. So any type of exercise heads us toward feeling better.

Step 5:  Find a friend, someone you enjoy, and pick up on their energy. Our mirror neurons pick up the energy (positive or negative) of those we are close to. Surrounding yourself with positive people helps you borrow their energy.

Step 6:  Appreciate. Stop whatever you’re doing and think of whom you really appreciate. Then pick up the phone, text or email a thank you. The act of appreciation also helps the brain move from a place of negativity to one of possibility. Amazing how lucky we are when we stop to think about it.

Step 7: Remember this isn’t forever. You will bounce back because you have before; this feeling is temporary, thank goodness!


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