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Improve Your Mood Now

Seven science-backed things you can do today to feel happier.

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Source: Big Stock Images

Improving your mental health can sometimes take time, planning, and often money. There are 12-step plans, 3-month goals, therapy bills, and emotionally-exhausting hours spent examining childhood memories. Sometimes you just want to feel better ASAP and don’t have a lot of money to spend to do it. Here are seven things you can do right now to improve your mood that require little to no planning, effort, or money.

1. Go outside.

We’ve known for a while that being in nature is essential for mental and physical well-being, but recently researchers have quantified exactly how much fresh air we need: 120 minutes a week. You can spend two hours in nature once a week or 15 to 20 minutes in nature every day. What matters is that by the end of the week you’ve spent 120 minutes enjoying the natural world. It might require some Googling and a short drive or trip on public transportation to get to your closest park or beach, but longer life and improved mental health are worth it.

2. Talk to a friend.

Human beings are social creatures. We need social interactions to stay emotionally and physically healthy. According to former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, loneliness is associated with a reduction in lifespan equivalent to what you’d see if you smoked 15 cigarettes a day. To reduce feelings of loneliness and boost your mental and physical health, pick up the phone and call your best friend or someone you haven’t spoken to in a while. Invite a friend over for dinner tonight or make a friend-date for next weekend.

3. Spend some relaxing time alone.

We need social interactions, but we need alone time, too. Especially time away from electronic devices that light up, vibrate, and ping every five minutes with phone calls and texts and emails and distressing news alerts. It’s exhausting! Take some time today—even just 15 minutes will do—to be quiet, alone, and peaceful. This might involve a meditation app or a bubble bath. It might involve a solo walk home from work or around your neighborhood. However you choose to spend the time, make sure nothing stressful will break through the peace for those sweet solitary minutes.

4. Exercise.

You probably already know this, but I’ll repeat it just in case: Exercise is really, really important for your mental well-being. When you exercise regularly, you sleep better, feel less stress, and improve your mood as well as benefit yourself physically. Today, try to walk home from work or take the stairs instead of the elevator, take your dog on a longer walk than usual, use that gym membership you’re paying for but haven’t used in months, or swim laps in a local public pool. Even just a short burst of exercise can improve your energy level. Do it now.

5. Eat a healthy meal.

This is another obvious but important one. It's also easy to ignore when unhealthy foods taste so good and are so easy to find. According to Dr. Eva Selhub of Harvard Medical School, “Multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function — and even a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression.” Plan to make your next meal a healthy one. Order a salad instead of a sandwich, eat an apple instead of a muffin, and revise your grocery shopping list to include healthful foods like vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.

6. Listen to music.

Not only is music enjoyable to listen to, but it’s good for your mental wellness, too. Research shows that “music seems to 'selectively activate' neurochemical systems and brain structures associated with positive mood, emotion regulation, attention and memory.” But the music you choose is important. Some music can be upsetting or agitating. Generally, music that’s slower with more gentle chord progressions and longer notes is best. Put together a playlist of songs you can turn to when your mood needs a boost, or your brain needs to chill out.

7. Go to bed early.

I’ve saved the most important thing you can do to improve your mental health for last. It costs nothing and requires no planning. Sleep! You need it. Badly. Poor sleep habits lead to adverse psychological and physical health outcomes.

Tonight, try to go to bed early, if you can, or sleep in a bit if that’s possible. If you’re a night owl, talk to your doctor about taking a low dose of melatonin at sunset. It may help your body grow more tired at an earlier hour than is typical for you, which is a great thing if you’ve got to wake up early for a job.

Also, take a nap during the day if you can, as long as it won’t make it harder to fall asleep at night. Treat sleep health the same as physical health. You know that eating hamburgers and pizza for every meal is bad for you, but so is only sleeping for a few hours a night. Maybe if you start thinking of four hours of sleep like it’s a double bacon cheeseburger and eight hours like it’s a nutritious salad packed with lean protein, you might take sleep more seriously.

The best thing about this list of what you can do to boost your mental health isn’t that they’re free or nearly free, require little to no planning, and immediately benefit you. Plus, you can combine them into one awesome day: In the A.M., take a long, relaxing shower or bath (#3), listen to some calming music as you get ready for your day (#6), and eat a healthy breakfast (#5). In the afternoon, meet up with a friend (#2) at a park or beach (#1) and take a long walk together (#4). Finally, give yourself an early bedtime so that you’re sure to get a full eight hours of sleep (#7). Sounds like a perfect day.

More from Andrea Brandt Ph.D. M.F.T.
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