You can’t lead a happy, healthy, and productive life when you are feeling crummy. You can’t work very well. You can’t be creative. And you can’t enjoy the company of others.
So why is it that so many people, so much of the time, are downright miserable?
Is it the existential situation – the psychological default program that kicks in when we realize we are alone? Is it the result of thinking we are alone when we are not? Is it what happens when we live without purpose, as Victor Frankl suggests? Or is it merely too much sugar?
Answer: All of the above.
But what do you care? You can’t avoid getting into a funk now and then. However, you can learn to recognize the onset of a bad mood and get yourself out of it before it ruins your day (or your life).
I should know. I’m a moody bastard. If I could gather up all the time I’ve spent fretting, frowning, grousing, and/or complaining, I’d have enough to become a medical doctor and start my own emergency clinic. (That would cheer me up!)
Grumping around is not only wasteful; it’s limiting and potentially destructive. When you feel bad, you lack the emotional strength to try new things or overcome obstacles. As a consequence, you tend to spend your time on very ordinary chores, the kinds of tasks that will ensure the same old ho-hum life.
I once read a book on optimism and pessimism that made the case that the difference between feeling sad and clinical depression is not one of kind but of degree. If this is true, two conjectures come immediately to mind:
1. That moodiness should be actively combated, because moodiness can lead to despair.
2. That despair is an extreme form of moodiness, and so some of the techniques that eliminate moodiness can cure clinical depression.
Versions of despair – cynicism, anger, and fear – have no place in your business or personal life. If you let them in, you will give up too easily – and that can cost you.
Bad feelings are usually triggered by stress – some external event that creates a feeling of emotional discomfort. To lead a psychologically comfortable life (free of unnecessary stress and open to happiness and other good things), you must learn to recognize stress in its early stages and do something to reduce it.
Avoiding a bad mood is much like avoiding a common headache: If you can feel it coming on early enough and get some aspirin into your system, you’ll never be in pain. But if you wait till the pain is planted in your head, you’ll have a very difficult time getting rid of it.
One way to deal with stress is to get rid of the external cause of it. If, for example, a new client is a royal pain, figure out how to deal with him or pass him off to a competitor. If a new set of regulations is making your routine work difficult, master them and they’ll cease to give you stress.
Another, sometimes more practical, way to defeat stress is to change the way you react to it. As Victor Frankl pointed out in his classic book “Man’s Search for Meaning”, it is impossible to control the external circumstances of our lives. We must accept what comes to us with equanimity. But we do not have to accept the way we respond.
Frankl argues that if you see a purpose in your role in life, you’ll have a much easier time avoiding the stress of not knowing what to do. Two thousand years ago, Marcus Aurelius said, “If you are distressed by anything internal, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to the view you have of that thing. How you view anything is a power you can revoke at any moment.”
Here are 12 ways to deal with problems without getting stressed over them:
1. Forgive yourself for feeling bad. Depending on your biology, your upbringing, and your circumstances, you may feel blue rarely, sometimes, or often. Accept it as normal.
2. Count your blessings.
3. Take a nap. You’d be surprised by how often you can make yourself feel better simply by taking a 10-minute catnap.
4. Take a stress break. If you work as hard as I do, you will be forever on the verge of a nervous breakdown unless you do something about it. One of the best things you can do is schedule at least two (and preferably three or four) stress breaks every working day.
A stress break is not a stress break unless:
- You get at least 10 feet away from your desk.
- You are completely distracted by it.
- It lasts at least five minutes.
- It relaxes you.
- It energizes you.
If you have good control over your daily schedule, you can plan stress breaks between tasks. Ideally, you’ll want a five-minute break every 90 to 120 minutes. If your schedule is too frenetic or unpredictable to do it that way, use an egg timer and simply break away from whatever you are doing when it rings.
5. Cut out the crap food. Remember, sugar and starch are poisons. Be aware of how they affect your moods.
6. Spend as much time as you can with upbeat people. Moody people are often helpful, productive, inspiring, and useful. But they are always an emotional drag. If your life involves moody energy-sappers, refresh with positive friends.
7. Follow Dale Carnegie’s Three C’s: Don’t criticize. Don’t condemn. Don’t complain.
8. Make sure you are getting enough sleep. If you are not sleeping well, chances are you are irritable and somewhat unproductive. This is a vicious circle. Get out of it. Get some sleep.
This will not only keep your stress level in check but will also improve your overall health. And remember this: The sleep you get before midnight is twice as good as the sleep you get afterward. So go to bed early. In fact, your entire health-and-fitness program should be based on the “early to rise” concept. Get to bed early enough so that you can wake up refreshed and stress free, eat properly, get your cardio workout done, and get to work at least an hour before you have to. (Two hours earlier is better.)
9. Exercise. Intense exercise will tire you out, but it won’t reduce stress. Walking, biking at a medium pace, swimming slowly – these are the sorts of exercise that can reduce stress.
10. Play. Again, be cognizant of what forms of play reduce stress and which add to it. Golfing is mostly, from what I’ve seen, a stress producer. So are most competitive sports. Yes, they’re fun if you have a competitive nature. But they don’t reduce stress.
11. Work to improve things. If you are bummed out about problems at work, do this: Compose a list of your five most pressing incomplete jobs. Then break down each job into specific tasks that can be accomplished in an hour or less. Arrange those tasks in order of priority. Finally, choose one. Just one. Put everything else out of your mind and get to work on it. Immediately. No excuses.12. Listen to classical music. Researchers have discovered many interesting things about the effects of classical music – especially Mozart’s – on the brain. For example:
- In 1996, the College Entrance Exam Board Service conducted a study of all students taking their SATs. Students who sang or played a musical instrument scored an average of 51 points higher on the verbal portion and 39 points higher on the math portion of the test.
- In a controlled University of California study, students who listened to 10 minutes of Mozart before taking SATs had higher scores than students who didn’t.
- Major corporations like Shell, IBM, and Dupont, along with hundreds of schools and universities, have started using classical music to cut learning time in half and increase the retention of newly learned material.
- And in a University of Washington study, people who listened to light classical music for 90 minutes while copyediting a manuscript caught 21% more mistakes.
Even if you rarely listen to classical music, give it a try. “The Mozart Effect” will help you on some level by having a positive, lifelong effect on your health, learning, and behavior.