Editor's Note: This is a guest post by Victoria Vargas. Victoria is a writer, archaeologist, historic preservationist and lover of small dwellings. She writes at Smaller Living about right-sizing our lifestyles for the space and freedom to live large.
There’s a lot of bad news out there these days and so many of us seem to be struggling under additional stress and worry. No matter how sunny a disposition we may normally have, sometimes life beats us up a bit and we get the blues. They say that happiness is a choice, but the reality is that we can’t always control how we feel. However, we can control how we respond to those feelings.
Wallowing in the blues, no matter how seemingly justifiable, tends to become self-perpetuating and we can easily sink into a lower and lower state of unhappiness. When the blues start hitting because the world is coming on too strong, I’ve found that a little concerted effort on my part is usually enough to help me turn the corner and get moving back into a better space.
1. Know Your Happy Place
I always grin when I think of the little starfish on the side of the dentist’s aquarium in Finding Nemo trying to comfort himself by yelling out his mantra “Hap-py place! Hap-py place!’ Identifying your “happy place” is a great starting point for kicking out the blues.
Is there one place where you feel you are your best self? At home curled up in your squashy chair with a book? Hiking on a trail in the forest? At your drawing table, absorbed in sketching? Lost in the aisles of your local library? Having a good chat with your partner or best friend? In your kitchen cooking up a big pot of soup? Reading an adventure story to a special child in your life? Playing with your pup in the neighborhood dog park?
Know what your happy place is and find a way to spend some time there. It’s sure to help lift your spirits.
2. Make a List of Your Favorite Things
Take out a piece of paper and quickly jot down a list of your favorite things. I call this my joy list. For me that includes things like my lover’s laugh, the burble of a coffee maker, my cat’s purr, riding my bike, sharing a meal with friends, reading a good book, cyclamens (a cute plant with a bloom that looks like a surprised butterfly), bird’s nests, small houses, camping, a crackling fire, and the smell of the desert in the rain, among others. Write down at least 10 things that bring you joy (20 is better).
When life is coming on too strong and it seems that only the bad stuff is getting your attention, spend a few minutes really focusing on each of the items on your list. Imagine the feeling, smells, and sounds of your favorite things – everything that makes that moment or thing resonate for you. The better you visualize it, the more powerful it will be. Even better, see if you can spend some time doing or experiencing some of the things on your list.
If you’re feeling really creative, make a visual reminder of your joy list. Clip some images from magazines, cull some pictures from your photo album, or take some new pics with a camera and create a little collage of happy images. Whenever you’re down, just looking at them is sure to bring a smile to your lips.
When I first saw Tammy’s collection of small images on her About page, I thought how wonderful it was to see these glimpses into what makes Tammy’s heart sing. Take hers as inspiration for what you can create for yourself. You can line the images up in little boxes using a graphic/photoshop-type program or if freeform better suits you, print them or cut them out and glue them down on a piece of scrap cardboard or poster board. I started culling images for my own collage, which I’ve named “Happies.”
3. Write it Down
Writing down what’s bothering us when we’re in a funk is a great way to let some of it go. Getting it out of our head and down on paper seems to clear it from our need to keep revisiting it mentally over and over again. Write it down and let it go for now.
The worries will keep, and your mind (and heart) need a little space to remember what’s wonderful in your life and in the world. If you have a journal or notebook you keep your thoughts in, that’s great, use it. If not, take out a piece of paper and write it down or type it into a document on your computer. For me, the physical act of handwriting these things down seems to be more effective.
4. Be Grateful for What’s Good in Your Life
A corollary to journaling about what’s bothering us, once we get the stuff that’s making us sad or unhappy down on paper, is to then refocus our minds on what we’re grateful for in our life and in the world. Make a list of at least five to ten things for which you’re grateful. This really does work. Nothing stops unhappy, circular thoughts (what many people who meditate call “monkey mind”) in their tracks faster than a barrage of happy, grateful thoughts. When we’re down in the dumps, this is the time we most need to remind ourselves of what’s right in our lives and the world.
5. Do Something Kind for Someone Else
Another great strategy for getting out of a fun is to take the focus off you and do something thoughtful for someone else. It could be as simple as baking some cookies to share with someone, offering to help them when they’re in a crunch, or even volunteering at the animal or homeless shelter. Nothing puts life back into perspective quicker than understanding that most of what sends us into a funk is relatively insignificant in the greater scheme of things. Giving to others brings a sense of connectedness and helps us remember that everyone has hard or difficult times. We’re all part of the same web of life and bringing happiness to others is a sure way to also increase your own.
6. Move Your Body
Study after study has shown that getting exercise is a powerful strategy for lifting our spirits when we’re down. That little shot of endorphins that comes from working out is an amazing lift to our spirits. Yoga, walking, running, lifting weights, biking, swimming, you name it, it will help you clear out your mind, reduce stress and anxiety, and get your heart pumping and soul singing. As they say, just do it. Your soul will thank you.
7. Spend Some Time Outside
Being outdoors, even if it’s just to sit on your stoop and watch the birds for a few minutes while you sip a cup of tea, is a huge lift to an overburdened spirit. If you can take the time for a walk or hike in a natural setting, that’s even better. Anytime you spend outdoors, regardless of the weather, will help put you right. When I’ve had a troublesome day, sitting on my little back porch, listening to the birds, and watching the sun go down always seems to help soothe me and put me back into a better space emotionally.
8. Nourish Yourself
When we’re feeling down, it’s natural to turn to comfort foods, most of which are fatty, sweet, or otherwise unhealthy. Many people also turn to alcohol to help numb out the unhappiness of a bad day. What that accomplishes, however, is additional stress to our bodies and after the initial lift, a drop to a lower level energetically and emotionally. There is a proven link between anxiety and depression with sugar and alcohol intake.
When we’re feeling glum is when we most need to nourish our body so it can help us get back to equilibrium emotionally and physically. Lots of healthy veggies, fruits, lean proteins, and complex carbs will do the trick. I often find that cooking up a mess of lentil and leek stew or a veggie stir-fry with brown rice helps my outlook immensely. The process of cutting veggies, cooking them, and washing the dishes afterward is very meditative and helps bring me back to center. A warm cup of chamomile or rooibos tea afterward is also seriously comforting and happy-making.
9. Get Enough Sleep
When we’re down, our bodies need even more solid sleep than normal. Help yourself sleep better by not eating anything at least three hours before bedtime and preparing your body to relax by not engaging in anything stimulating before bed like watching a suspenseful movie or reading an overly engaging book. If your mind won’t let you rest and keeps spinning with whatever has given you the blues, instead of counting sheep, count your blessings. You’ll drift off in no time.
Some scents, especially lavender, can also help calm us when our monkey minds are engaged and won’t let us rest. A little essential oil mixed with a bit of sweet almond, sesame, or apricot kernel oil rubbed on our temples and wrists is extremely relaxing and can help lull you off to la la land in short order.
Naps are especially helpful for resetting our emotional gauges when we’re off our game emotionally. If I’m just not able to shake the blues, curling up with a good book for awhile (something uplifting or inspirational) and then sliding into a little nap often leaves me more refreshed and centered when I wake up.
10. Cultivate Positive Influences
When you’re down, the last thing you need is to surround yourself with unhappy people, stress-inducing or negative books, movies, or music, or more bad news. Instead of reinforcing the sadness we feel by lolling around with more negativity, intentionally seeking more positive input is important for getting back to a better space emotionally.
One of my guilty pleasures is a light-hearted cozy mystery book series by Nancy Atherton called “the Aunt Dimity Mysteries.” Reading the original two books in the series, Aunt Dimity’s Death and Aunt Dimity and the Duke always put me in a good place. The theme that runs throughout theses books is the power of love to heal broken hearts and broken lives. When I have a bad day or am feeling down, I know a date with Aunt Dimity is a good first step to getting back to my normally happy and optimistic self. Spend some time with whatever serves in that capacity for you – a favorite book, movie, or piece of music, whatever uplifts you.
Preparing for Future Rainy Days
One of the first books I read years ago on simplicity was Sarah Ban Breathnach’s Simple Abundance. Although the current minimalism and simplicity movement has evolved far beyond many of her initial ideas, there are still some gems to be found in her writing. One that has stuck with me is her “comfort drawer.”
“Life requires that we prepare ourselves for the inevitable times that try our souls. This is achieved with a comfort drawer. Comfort drawers are for those nights when you feel as if you’d like to pull the covers over your head and never come out. My refuge is the right hand bottom drawer of my dresser, where I stockpile small indulgences throughout the year.”
No, I don’t have a physical comfort drawer like Sarah suggests. My version of her comfort drawer is to keep a several little treats around the house for when I’m feeling down in the dumps. My rainy day arsenal includes a few favorite novels (yes, of course, Aunt Dimity mysteries, but also Pride and Prejudice and a few others), a special tin of tea, a CD of sublime music (mine is Krishna Das’ Breath of Life), a small embroidery project (creating something beautiful to give to someone as a gift always lifts my spirits), a few favorite movies (yes, I admit it, the 1949 version of Little Women and the original animated 101 Dalmations are on this list), a couple Sodoku puzzles, a small package of homemade bath salts, and a stick of my favorite (but hard to find) bergamot incense. Keeping some of your favorite things around for when you’re feeling down can be a big help when you need a little self-comforting.
Are the Blues a Signal That Something in our Life Needs to Shift?
The point of this post is to acknowledge that sometimes we need to comfort ourselves since we are responsible for our own happiness. As they say, happiness is an inside job – and we know best what makes our own hearts sing. Giving ourselves a respite from the worries and cares with a little self-comforting is a worthy enterprise and lets us get back to giving our best selves to the world and ready to engage again in this thing called life.
Getting the blues can be a signal that something isn’t working in our lives and some action is needed to move forward with peace and grace. No, it doesn’t mean that if we’re not incandescently happy 24/7 that something is drastically wrong. However, a recurring case of ennui or the blues is a signal that something’s off and is often our body and mind’s way of giving us a head’s up to look closer. After we’ve pulled ourselves into a better space, then it may be time to do some soul searching.
Are you unhappy in your job? Are your finances in bad shape? Has an important relationship in your life hit rocky ground? Are you discontented with your health or weight? Are you uncertain about your future path and out of fear are just maintaining status quo? Do you have a ton of stuff around you, a big home, nice car, and expensive toys and yet find little lasting joy in your life? This is the time to start asking the big questions and put on your problem solver hat.
If larger issues seem to be the cause of recurring bouts of unhappiness, take some time once you feel you’re back on solid ground and start thinking about positive changes you can make in your life. Inward focus is the first step, then outward action to fix what’s not working is the key.
Author’s note: Mild depression (AKA the blues) is very different than chronic or severe depression. If you are suffering from the latter, seek out professional help immediately. There’s no reason to be miserable. Life is a gift and our natural state of childlike wonder and love can’t flourish if we’re suffering under chronic or severe depression.