Amanda writes in with one of those good mailbag questions that ends up being its own post because it deserves a longer answer:
How do you handle those days when you just feel bad about yourself and just need a perk or a treat? Like your boss yells at you a bunch and you feel stressed out and burned out and you just go do something that makes you feel good for a little bit? I usually go get something to eat (not the best) or go buy makeup.
Here are the four most common things I do when I’m feeling down in the dumps, I’m alone and don’t have a social contact to connect with, and just want to feel better for a little while.
I’ll often read a book. I’ll just go into our sun room – a nice room with lots of windows – and just read for a while. I usually will read a page turner, something that’s not particularly thought intensive but not thoughtless, either. I usually choose literary fiction (I’m just finishing up Barkskins by Annie Proulx at the moment), epic fantasy, or science fiction.
I’ll go on a hike, usually at a particular state park that’s reasonably close to where I live that has really wonderful hilly hiking trails. I’ll just go on a walk in the woods and somehow I feel better.
I’ll play a “just one more turn…” computer game. These are usually really involved computer games that require a lot of thought and focus to play well, so I tend to get lost in them. The ones that usually attract my attention are Factorio, Civilization, Rimworld, Stellaris, and Europa Universalis.
I’ll practice martial arts at home, particularly taekwondo. Going through a long routine of taekwondo movements gets me into a flow state surprisingly well.
There are a few other things I do occasionally if the mood strikes me. I’ll exercise really vigorously. I’ll play a solitaire board game. I’ll make some sort of food item. I’ll go on a long walk.
What do all of these things have in common? It’s certainly not spending money.
Every single one of them is about getting into a “flow state.”
So, let’s back up here. A “flow state” is when you’re so engaged with an activity that you literally lose track of time and place. Have you ever been so engaged with doing something that you totally lose track of time and then all of a sudden you “snap back” to reality and you’re just stunned at how much time has passed? That’s “flow state.”
The thing is, flow state feels tremendously good and, I’ve found, the aftermath feels tremendously good, too. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi actually wrote a book about flow state, entitled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, and that subtitle is a big clue. Optimal experience.
I find that whenever I am able to get into a flow state, I thoroughly enjoy myself and I feel incredibly good afterwards, a feeling that lasts for a while. This is doubly true when I do it without anything hanging over my head – no impending deadlines or other responsibilities weighing me down. For example, I’ll sometimes get into a flow state when I’m doing work tasks with deadlines, but while those flow states feel good, they also completely wear me out. A flow state doing something I enjoy without deadlines or without a strict need to do it makes me feel good.
It’s possible to “lose track of time” without getting into a flow state. This can happen when you’re watching a television program, for example. You’re not really deeply engaged with the thing; rather, you just kind of zone out for a while. To me, this isn’t invigorating, but very exhausting. Think about how you feel after a day of just watching television.
Again, it’s worth noting that getting into a “flow state” doesn’t cost anything; it merely requires you to be doing something that you enjoy doing that’s engaging enough that you completely lose track of time and place.
So, to summarize, the one thing I do to improve my mood when I’m feeling down is to do something purely for enjoyment (but also not easy or thoughtless) that’s likely to put me into a “flow state,” where I’m so engaged with it that I lose track of time and place for a while. When I come out of that state, I always feel better and, more importantly, I feel ready to tackle real life problems. (That is, if I don’t just dive back into that “flow state.”)
As you can see, there are a wide variety of specific activities I can do that cause this to happen, so I consciously choose activities that do not require much expense.
For example, I know that from previous experience, I can get into a flow state while golfing, and I can also get into a flow state while working in a wood shop, but the expense of both of those things is tremendous. The startup costs of a proper wood shop are incredible (though it’s not too bad afterwards), while golf is an infinite path of expenses. So, even though I know those things can put me in a flow state, I skip by them.
What about other treats, like eating some ice cream? Sure, those things can give an immediate burst of “feeling good,” but that burst fades really quickly. I’m not left in a state where I feel good and motivated to tackle things after other kinds of splurges. Thus, over time, I’ve learned to not turn to those things that just give a quick burst of pleasure and fade immediately because they don’t really help. In fact, I usually end up feeling worse.
What if you don’t have the time for something that gets you into a “flow state”? If that’s the case, then clearing out a window for it becomes my big short-term goal. “If I get X, Y, and Z done in the next two hours, I can do this other thing for an hour or two.” I deeply enjoy those flow state activities that I have, so they tend to work really well as short-term motivators.
So my answer to Amanda is this: If you want a frugal way to boost your mood, find some things in your life that you enjoy that bring you into a “flow state” without requiring you to spend money and make them a regular and accessible part of your life. For me, “flow state” activities are the most reliable things I have in my life for feeling good in terms of things I can easily draw on when I’m alone or when I’m with others.
For me, as I noted earlier, reading, hiking, gaming, and practicing martial arts gets me there most of the time, and vigorous exercise, cooking, and long walks also work.
Of course, those things won’t necessarily work for you. If you don’t instinctively know what gets you into that kind of “flow state,” you should try a lot of things that you view as fun that don’t come with a sticker price. There are infinite things to do out there that are interesting but don’t require you to spend money.
I’ll offer up my daughter as an example because, well, she’s actually right across the room from me as I’m working on this article, so I asked her. She thought about it and she said the things that get her into that kind of state are painting, playing the piano, reading, and playing soccer.
I asked my oldest son as well, who was in another room nearby, and he told me that the things that work well for him are playing soccer, reading, doing taekwondo forms, and learning something new.
There are some overlap in those answers – we’re family, after all – but some big differences as well.
I’m not going to share a big list of fairly random ideas, but I’d suggest, for starters, trying things that your family and good friends really enjoy as low cost hobbies, as well as seeing if there are any groups or classes for free in your community that might help you dig into a hobby. You can discover those kinds of groups and activities using Meetup, the local library, and the community calendar that’s probably on your city’s website.
After I finish up this article, revise it a little, and then submit it to the website, I’m actually going to do one of those things listed earlier – namely, I’m going to practice taekwondo for half an hour or so. I’ll deeply enjoy the practice itself and I’ll probably slip into a flow state, so I’ll set an “emergency timer” for about an hour after I start just to make sure I don’t completely disrupt my day, and when I’m done, I’m almost certain I’ll feel really good and ready to tackle much of what’s left on my to-do list for today.
There’s truly nothing better I’ve found for lifting my mood than doing things that get me into a flow state. I think you may just find the same to be true in your own life.
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