How to beat a bad day

November 30, 1993|By Ellen O'Brien

On average, people classify every third day as a "bad day," according to Randy Larsen, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, who has been researching moods for a decade.

He identified 14 strategies that people rely on most consistently to cheer themselves up. Seven are effective short-term cures, two are less effective and five are self-defeating.

The seven most effective short-term cures and Mr. Larsen's comments:

* Problem-directed action: Actually doing something to solve the problem at the root of the depression.

* Reappraisal: "Reframing" the situation, to understand what may be good as well as what may be bad about it.

* Thinking about other successes: Reminding oneself of the other things in one's life that are going well.

* Rewarding oneself: Going on a shopping spree, for example, or out for dinner.

* Resolving to try harder: "It turns out that just thinking about the future, and how to avoid a similar problem in the future, makes people feel better immediately."

* Downward comparison: Thinking about other people whose problems are even worse than one's own. "It may not be the nicest thing to do. . . . But it actually works."

* Self-comparison: Comparing one's current situation to one's past situation.

The two less effective strategies are socializing and drinking. Both may immediately elevate people's moods, but feeling better "doesn't last," Mr. Larsen says.

Self-defeating strategies and his comments:

* "Venting": Crying and shouting. "Crying when sad, shouting when angry -- what Freud called 'catharsis' -- in the short term, does not appear to be effective."

* Distraction: Trying to escape sadness with diversions.

* Solitude: Being alone is "a bad idea. We've found people's moods go down . . . even in the short-term future."

* Fatalism: People who believe there is nothing to be done about a problem "tend to stay in a bad mood."

* Blaming failure on others: "A nasty form" of reappraisal, in which one reinterprets events in order to lay their failure at someone else's feet. "That just perpetuates a bad mood."

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