Is There Such a Thing As a Bad Day?

The case for why bad days (and good days) might be all in your head.

Posted Mar 31, 2019

Pexels / CCO
Source: Pexels / CCO

Here’s a thought exercise:

  • If something bad happened, it’s a bad day.
  • If something good happened, it’s a good day.
  • If something bad happens, and something good happens, what kind of day is it?

At first glance, this question reminds me of a glass half-empty or half-full scenario.

  • You woke up sick = bad day, right?
  • You get a raise at work = good day, yes?
  • You wake up sick, and you get a raise at work = ?

It’s difficult to answer this third question without additional context:

  • How much is the raise?
  • How sick do you feel?
  • How often do you feel sick?
  • Does the raise change the way you feel about your job?

These are just some of the questions that I would need to ask before I could properly assess what kind of day this was.

Hey, how are you? 

Evaluating days as good or bad is a social habit that is deeply embedded into modern culture. Most social greetings, whether it be in person or via text or email, begin with some kind of perfunctory “Hey, how are you?” greeting. My standard answer is, of course, “I’m fine,” but numerous, similarly ambiguous variations also regularly crop up in conversations (e.g., “I’m OK,” “Not bad,” “It’s going”).

While responses like these are designed to quickly skip ahead to the next phrase of pleasantries, other types of answers can’t help but invite further discussion (e.g., “I’m having a bad day,” or “I’m having a great day”).

These answers that deviate from the norm always make me curious.

If it’s a good day, my nerves begin to tingle in anticipation — Did they win the lottery? Did they learn that a previously unrequited crush was actually requited? Did they finally win those discounted tickets to Hamilton?

Pexels / CCO
Source: Pexels / CCO

If it’s a bad one, my mind spirals into a panic — Did someone close to them die? Did they lose their pet? Did they default on their student loans?

Through my lens, only this handful of events are deserving of a “good day” or “bad day” label. Which is why when I hear their actual explanations for why they’re in a certain mood, I am usually let down and/or confused. That’s it?

In fact, some people’s bad days would be considered pretty good ones in my book. And vice versa. For example, someone was having a bad day, because they got a new job offer, but the company wasn’t able to meet their exact salary demands. Meanwhile, another person was having a great day, because they were going home half an hour early. That’s it?

At the same time, I’m sure my own definition of what constitutes a terrific day or a lackluster one would probably result in similar disappointment from others.

This thinking is what led me to the earlier exercise: How do we evaluate our days? (And, does it really matter?)

What to expect when you're expecting (a bad day) 

I may have found the answer in a quote by Alexander Pope, an 18th-century English poet: “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”

Expectation is a key with the ability to unlock a wonderful day or a terrible one.

In reality, bad days aren’t actually bad. They’re just days that didn’t go exactly as planned, or those that you predicted weren’t going to go as planned. Steve Schwartz, a writer for LifeHacker, points to the power of the placebo effect:

     “We’ve already established that if you expect bad things to happen, you are more susceptible to having bad things happen to you. As the cherry on top, negative expectations will also cause you to interpret things in a negative manner. So even if the rest of your day is average, you won’t see it that way.”

Schwartz refers to pain research in which patients who took placebos (AKA were primed to have lower expectations of pain) not only felt less pain physically, but also showed less activity in the brain regions where pain is interpreted.

On the other end, if your expectations are met, or are exceeded, then you are likely predisposed to seeing the rest of your day in a positive light.

While it is freeing to know that the power to have a good day (or a bad one) lies squarely in our own minds, the practice of doing so is not as simple as it sounds.

What kind of glass are you? 

Are you a glass is half-full or half-empty kind of person? For me, the answer changes depending on the day. But most days, I like to think of myself as an optimist. Chances are, you do, too.

Why most of us feel this way, according to cognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharot, is optimism bias which she calls “the belief that the future will be much better than the past and present.”

Pexels / CCO
Source: Pexels / CCO

Sharot first stumbled onto the theory when she decided to evaluate people’s memories after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A survey conducted about a year later found that individuals accurately recalled their experiences of the events only 63 percent of the time.

In her book, The Optimism Bias, Sharot unpacks this phenomenon:

     “[M]emories are susceptible to inaccuracies partly because the neural system responsible for remembering episodes from our past might not have evolved for memory alone. Rather, the core function of the memory system could in fact be to imagine the future — to enable us to prepare for what has yet to come.”

But being a natural optimist doesn’t mean you are impervious to pessimism. According to Martin Seligman, a psychologist and the father of Positive Psychology, “Half the world is on the low positive affective spectrum,” or not naturally positive.

That’s because pessimism might be rooted deep in our evolutionary DNA. In an interview for GQ, he explains:

     “The species that was going through the Ice Ages had been bred, and selected, through pessimism. The mentality that said, ‘It’s a beautiful day in San Diego today, I bet it’ll be beautiful tomorrow’ got crushed by the ice. What got selected for, in the Ice Ages, was bad weather animals, who were always thinking about the bad stuff that could occur.”

Seligman sees himself on the low-positive end of the scale, which is the why so much of his work is devoted to helping people become more positive and optimistic.

In his book Learned Optimism, Seligman suggests our outlooks are determined by how we explain adversity. For example, pessimists generally view adversity as permanent (things will never change), pervasive (this is just how things are), and personal (it’s always my fault), whereas optimists consider hardship as temporary, situational, and contingent on external circumstances.

This quick video explains the differences further.

As the name of the book suggests, there are a number of techniques to fight our inner pessimist, such as becoming more aware of negative thought patterns, more accepting of failures, and more open to alternative explanations to ostensibly bad situations.

Yet, like most things, the lessons are easier said than learned. For example, the next time someone asks, “How was your day?” What will you say?