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3 Surprising Ways to Cheer Yourself Up

Quirky strategies to boost your mood when you're deflated.

Key points

  • When people feel down, the best way to cheer up may not be seeking pleasure, but finding activities that offer a sense of accomplishment.
  • An activity that involves a sense of "adventure," like finding one's way in a different neighborhood, can be an effective mood booster.
  • Engaging with the stories of others striving to achieve dreams, despite setbacks, can show the universality of struggle and relieve anxiety.
Jacob Lund/Shutterstock
Source: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

When people need cheering up, they often think first about sources of pleasure, like delicious food, a weekend at a beach house, or retail therapy. But, pleasure isn't always the best way to effectively boost your mood. Activities that provide a sense of accomplishment can be more successful.

The problem: A giant fly in the ointment with this advice is that times we need cheering up are often when we're beyond exhausted. We're either too busy, or we're exhausted by loss, grief, inequity, or disappointment. In that state, you're not likely to do activities like cleaning your house, even if that would provide a sense of accomplishment.

Instead, consider these quirky ideas to get through a tough emotional time.

1. An adventure, even if it's a bit arduous.

This strategy isn't well-suited to every time you need cheering up, but it's one to include in your toolkit. In my 20s and early 30s, I used to do a lot of budget travel. For example, I would schedule layovers so I would fly overnight, explore a city for the day upon arrival, then fly out the following night, thus avoiding paying for hotel stays. It was the only way I could afford to travel. However, inevitably it meant I was pretty exhausted and didn't do as much exploring as I would've if I had slept. Yet, these were some of the best memories of my life.

When you're feeling flat or exhausted by life, you might not have the motivation to do things you "should," like paperwork or housework. However, you may have the motivation to go on an adventure.

Last week, I ended up driving over seven hours each way, alone, to stay in a city for one night so that I could attend a medical appointment. It was the first night I'd ever spent away from my five-year-old. It was a brutally exhausting trip, but it was surprisingly fun and brought back a lot of memories of my budget travel days.

Adventures can be a great mood boost, even if they're objectively not relaxing. Getting out of your home environment will usually give you a fresh perspective on your life and problems.

2. Entertainment featuring people on physically and emotionally exhausting, but meaningful, quests.

When you're feeling stressed and anxious, it's easy to see those emotions as wholly negative. However, sometimes when you're feeling those emotions it's because you're pursuing an important goal.

Almost every great thing I've done has involved moments of feeling physically sick with anxiety (e.g., getting my Ph.D., buying houses, booking multi-continent trips, having a child). During many moments, I felt like I was possibly making terrible decisions.

A way to boost yourself when you're in the thick of deep anxiety and stress about your goals is to see other people experiencing the same—reaching for their dreams, with no guarantee of success, and often enduring lots of heartache and setbacks along the way.

Options to try: The TV show Alone (which features people literally alone in the freezing wilderness for months, often surrounded by bears and other predators), the Olympics and Olympic trials, or documentaries like Free Solo (about dangerous mountain climbing). While you're not actually accomplishing anything by watching, they can help you realize when you are on a meaningful quest in your own life, even if what you're predominantly feeling is scared, anxious, and unsure. Those feelings don't necessarily mean you're making mistakes. They're par for the course when you're pursuing big goals.

This strategy often works best if you pick content that resonates emotionally but isn't similar to whatever goal you're pursuing. That way, you'll see the universality of your emotions and struggles, and this can provide some psychological distance and relief from anxiety.

3. Reach out to someone you admire.

An advantage of feeling low is sometimes we feel like we've got nothing to lose, and this can paradoxically make us more adventurous in some respects. For example, you might risk being ignored or rejected when usually you'd avoid that. If you already feel like a loser, it can seem like there's no way to feel worse, so why not take some interpersonal risks?

One way to channel this is to reach out to someone you admire. You might not hear back, but if you do, it can provide a great mood boost. You will usually feel a sense of accomplishment if you try reaching out, if that's something you wouldn't normally do.

This could be as simple as sending a grateful tweet or email to an author or podcaster whose work you've benefited from. Or it could be connecting with someone in your field of work, like an old classmate or professor. If you're not asking for anything, but merely sending a thankful or friendly message, there's a good chance you will hear back (unless you try to contact a major celebrity).

There are lots of ways to cheer yourself up when you need to get through an emotionally tough time. The wider variety of strategies you use, the more resilient you'll be. No, they won't make your emotional pain vanish, but they can help you see your pain and yourself differently. They can help you feel a little better and make hard times feel like they're growth experiences rather than like they're beating you down. Try one or two of these suggestions and see if they help you.

LinkedIn image: mimagephotography/Shutterstock. Facebook image: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

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