Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

How To Get Out Of A Funk

What to do when life seems empty

Photo: cordron.alejandro

At various times in my life, I've found myself in a state I can only describe as a funk—not depressed, but listless, purposeless, unable to motivate myself and caring about very little. Words like "flat," "empty," and "disconnected" also come to mind. It's not a particularly pleasant state, but it is often surprising: it usually occurs immediately after I've accomplished a goal.

You'd think that would be when I'd feel the most positive and the most self-actualized—and it is. But it's also when I feel the most exhausted and in need of a break. And feeling that way—looking into the future with little else in mind but rest—somehow also seems to dampen my spirit.

Which isn't to say there aren't other times I feel "funky." Often, I don't really know why. Often, I simply have to wait it out, to let it resolve on its own. But I've discovered over the years a number of steps I can take that sometimes, depending on my funk's cause, can speed up its resolution.

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  1. Connect with people. As I wrote in a previous post, How To Pull Good Things Out Of Others, who we are and how we experience ourselves often has more to do with who surrounds us than anything else. When feeling low, one of the fastest ways to pick yourself up is to connect with specific people you know bring energy out of you.
  2. Commit to a new goal. Sometimes my listlessness is purposelessness in disguise. Human beings are not only intrinsically driven by a sense of purpose but also seem to require a sense of purpose to lead a satisfying life. It needn't be a grand purpose, but it must be a purpose that feels important to you.
  3. Read an engrossing book or see an emotionally powerful movie. Both have the power to transport us, to provide a perspective far removed from our own, and in doing so, unlock emotions we want to feel: joy, hope, warmth—even sadness. When in a funk, what we feel doesn't seem to be as important as finding a way to feel something.
  4. Travel. Though travel has never been one of my favorite things to do, it does accomplish something important when I'm in a funk: it takes away familiar environmental cues and replaces them with unfamiliar ones. And as most of our behavior and emotions are cued by our environment (from turning off lights when we leave a room to the sinking feeling we may get as we approach our place of work), if we want to act and feel differently, changing our environmental cues is a good place start. Not that you can escape yourself by relocating geographically. But you can be helped to access different parts of yourself.
  5. Wait patiently. No mood lasts forever. And life won't leave you alone but will eventually present you with new challenges that activate you. And even if such challenges are difficult, they will often bring out your best self.

Often simply becoming aware of what we're feeling helps prevent us from being swallowed by it. Even if you feel powerless to break out of a funk, just admitting to yourself that you're in one can be helpful. And even help you appreciate it. For if we never experienced funks, any joy we'd feel wouldn't be quite as sweet.

 

Check out Dr. Lickerman's book, The Undefeated Mind, which will be published in late 2012.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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