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Handling Melancholy Without Buying Stuff
Like a lot of people, I sometimes fall into periods of melancholy. I don’t view it as anything like actual depression, which is a serious mental health condition that deserves proper treatment by professionals, but it’s a sense of feeling sad about my life. I tend to let ordinary routines and habits slide a bit in those moods, I tend to become less productive, and I also tend to be much more prone to impulse buying and the influence of advertising. I am much more prone to these feelings during the winter months, as I think it combines with mild seasonal affective disorder (basically, the winter blues). In fact, I’ve written specifically about my seasonal affective disorder and frugal strategies for beating it.
Over time, I usually manage to shake out of these moods on my own regardless of the season, thanks to a repertoire of techniques that really work well for me that do not cost money and do not involve a visit to medical professionals. I strongly encourage you to give some of these things a try if you’re feeling blue. All of these things have worked for me in the past, every one of them is backed up with medical and psychological research, and none of them cost you any money to try.
A very, very important note: if feelings of sadness and melancholy persist over a long period or deepen into a state where it is seriously impairing your life, talk to a doctor as soon as possible. While I believe that periods of mild sadness and melancholy are part of the normal human condition, prolonged and deep periods of such feelings are a condition that deserves proper review and treatment by an actual professional.
Get Adequate Sleep…
Getting inadequate sleep leads to a whole host of negative feelings. Even a single night of sleep of 4.5 hours or less caused an increase in stress, anger, sadness, and mental exhaustion, and it quickly increases with continued lack of sleep over multiple nights.
People sometimes fall into this routine because of excessive responsibilities, but more often than that, inadequate sleep happens due to poor “sleep hygiene.” Sleep hygiene simply refers to setting the stage to the best of your ability for a great night of sleep, and there are some simple things you can do to make that happen.
Go to sleep earlier. If you have to get up early each day, simply get into a routine of going to sleep earlier each night. Move your bedtime to an earlier time gradually rather than making it a radical shift and it will be easier to adapt.
Stop looking at a screen during the 30 minutes before going to bed, and don’t bring devices to bed with you. The light that screens emit can help keep you awake. Avoid watching television and using digital devices when it starts to get close to your ideal bedtime.
Don’t eat within a few hours of bedtime. The process of digestion and absorption of sugars and other materials in food can keep your body in a wakeful state even when you want to sleep. Try to avoid eating within a couple of hours before bed.
Get some sunshine during the day. I’ll come back to this strategy later for other reasons, but getting some outdoor time during the day can help you sleep well at night.
Keep your room very dark as you’re going to sleep. Unless you have a fear of the dark, try to keep your room very dark as you’re going to sleep, as light sources can help keep you awake.
… But Not Too Much Sleep
While getting adequate sleep can help your mood, getting too much sleep can have a negative impact on your mood, leaving you feeling lethargic and down. I sometimes fall into this pattern in the winter months, when the nights are very long and I’m tempted to go to bed very early and sleep later than I’d like.
In general, if you’re sleeping over nine hours per night on a consistent basis, you may be getting too much sleep. While you shouldn’t overreact to this and push yourself too far in the opposite direction, there are a few smart things you can do to ensure you hit that “seven to nine hour” recommended level.
Set a fail-safe alarm at the nine hour mark. Set a very loud alarm across the room that goes off at a point roughly nine hours from when you fall asleep. If you go to bed at 10:30 and anticipate being asleep by 11 PM, set that alarm for 8 AM.
Use “dawn therapy.” While it’s a bad idea to bring a device into your bedroom if you’re suffering from too little sleep, a smartphone can actually be helpful if you’re oversleeping. Charge your phone on your bedside table and aim the screen at you (with the screen off) as you go to sleep. This alarm will go off and gradually turn the screen extremely bright over a period of time, simulating dawn and helping you to rise naturally in that seven to nine hour window (depending on when you set the alarm). I use this one in the winter months.
Have something that needs completed. One of my favorite things to do in the winter that gets me out of bed is to make a meal in the slow cooker overnight. Something in the back of my mind tells me that I need to get up and take care of the food. So, I’ll make something like steel cut oats or a breakfast casserole in the slow cooker and I know, in my mind, that I have to deal with this in eight hours or I’ll have a huge mess. Something about that internal sense of purpose helps me to get up easily when it’s time.
There are numerous mood lifting benefits of spending time outside. This article from Time lists a number of them and how sunlight biochemically affects the body, but for all of the writing about melatonin and vitamin D, the real truth is that time outside just leaves you feeling good.
This doesn’t mean that you have to charge outside all day and get a horrible sunburn or something. It just means consciously deciding to spend at least a portion of the day outside, at least thirty minutes or so.
Here are a few tricks that make this work for me.
Make an appointment to do it. I work from home and, particularly during the winter months, I often don’t have a good reason to even go outside on a given day. Because of that, I usually schedule some outdoors time at least once a day. I literally put an event on my calendar that says “Go outside” and do it when it comes up.
Play a game that strongly encourages you to go outside. There are a number of free games for smartphones, such as Pokemon Go, that encourage you to go outside and walk around. My whole family plays Pokemon Go and it encourages us to get outside and go on walks all the time.
Lower the resistance. Put everything you need to go on a walk in one place so you can always find it. Have your walking shoes and socks and appropriate clothes right by the door, or next to the chair where you’d put those shoes on.
Going outside synergizes very well with simply taking a walk, and those things also synergizes well with getting adequate sleep, but walking is a mood lifter all on its own. Simply taking a stroll through your neighborhood or through a nearby park can have a profound positive impact on your mood.
It doesn’t have to be a vigorous walk (though that helps; we’ll get back to that in a bit). It can be a slow meander or a slow steady pace; whatever works for you. The point is that you’re up and moving around and changing environments.
Here are some tips to really make this click.
Schedule it. Just like the suggestion of scheduling outdoor time, schedule some time for a daily walk. The same concept is true behind making it into a game and making yourself prepared to do it, as suggested earlier under the idea of spending time outdoors.
Walk a pet. Even if you don’t have a pet of your own, perhaps you can walk a neighbor’s pet for them. Going on a walk with a small dog can be a great way to get a moderately paced walk while enjoying the company of a small pet.
Walk a baby. If you have someone in your life with a baby or toddler, offer to stop by and walk the young child regularly. Not only will this get you out of the house and walking around, it also gives that person a much-needed break to get a few chores done or to just simply catch their breath. This is a great thing for an uncle or aunt or close friend to do.
Visit a Forest
Time spent regularly in nature has profound health benefits, and it’s a key part of the reason why I love to visit parks and go on hikes. It just feels good to be in nature, one of those subtle things that leaves you feeling better about yourself and the world in a way you can’t quite put your finger on.
Again, this builds on the strategies of going outside and going on a walk, but you can get natural benefits by simply going to a park and sitting on a park bench for a while, as long as the environment is sufficiently green.
Here are some ways to really make this work.
Find a nearby park and make it part of your daily walking routine. Wherever the nearest park is to your place of residence, make it part of your regular walking route. I have a small park pretty close to my home and I regularly walk through it and although it might not be the most natural environment there is, there is a little section that surrounds the path with trees and it’s perfectly peaceful and mood lifting.
Go to a nature preserve or a state or national park regularly on weekends. Spend an afternoon once a month at a place where you can really get in touch with nature, whether it’s a preserve, a botanical garden, a state park, or a national park. Just find a place with lots of nature around you and spend time there.
Make it social. Invite a friend or family member to go to the park with you. Maybe you have a friend who has a dog that needs regular walking and you can just walk through the park together once a day, or maybe you can go with a friend to a park that’s twenty minutes away and take a picnic lunch. This synergizes really well with a later strategy for ending the blues.
Get Sweaty (in a Way You Enjoy)
While walking is a nice gentle form of exercise, there’s a ton of mood-lifting benefit from taking it further and exerting yourself. You don’t have to be a gym rat, either, and you don’t have to be in great shape. Just find something you enjoy doing and do it with enough intensity so that you’re sweating and breathing a little heavy. That’s it.
The endorphins and adrenaline that rush your system as a result of exercise are tremendously valuable in promoting a sense of well-being, particularly after the exercise, but for some, even during the exercise. Personally, I find that I experience a rush during some forms of exercise and not others, but I always feel good after vigorous exercise.
Here are some tips for making this work in your life.
Find things you like doing that get your blood moving. You don’t have to go to the gym if you don’t like to. You don’t have to do push-ups if you hate them. Just find things you do like doing that make you sweat a little bit. I like doing low-contact taekwondo sparring and kicking a bag; I find that really gets my blood flowing and I don’t hate it. Find what clicks with you.
Don’t do it to the point of misery; do it at a pace that feels good and stop if it doesn’t. You will gradually get better at this. Don’t feel bad if your initial efforts seem “weak” or “poor.” It’s okay. The key is that you’re doing this, sweating a little, breathing a little heavy. Every time you do that, you’ll get a little better, then a little better.
Do it socially. I find it’s much easier to exercise and have fun if I’m doing it with people whose company I enjoy. It gives you camaraderie and enables people to help you when it’s difficult (and you can help them when they struggle, too). Find people that are at your level of fitness or are willing to work with you even if you’re not at the same level. This might mean something as simple as going on a brisk walk with a friend every day.
Talk To “Good” People
By “good,” I mean friendly, supportive, and positive people, not cruel, unsupportive, and negative people. Regular conversations and relationships with people who genuinely like you and don’t wish to tear you down have been shown to provide mental and physical health benefits.
It’s easy – just call up a friend and have a chat. Even better, have a friend come over, or go somewhere to meet up with a friend, if you’re up to it. Aim for friends who are positive – they make you laugh and generally feel good about yourself – instead of negative ones.
What if you don’t have any friends for which this will work? In that case, you need to invest some energy in building new positive friendships. This might seem difficult – trust me, I know that it’s not easy building friendships (outside of workplace “friendships”) as an adult – but there are a few things you can do.
First, look for Meetups and groups in your area that match an interest of yours. Look at Meetup or at the websites of your city, your city’s library, your city’s parks and rec department, the community calendar, local newspapers, and the websites of towns and cities near you. Unless you’re very rural – and sometimes even if you are – you’ll come up with a long list of groups. Why? People love to spend time with like-minded people, and that’s how people find like-minded people.
Once you find such a group, start getting involved. Go to the meetups or meetings. Make yourself get involved. When you go, make sure you’re putting your best foot forward by cleaning up and dressing well.
When you’re there, make an effort to socialize. If you don’t know what to say, just introduce yourself and say you’re new. Ask questions, even if they seem dumb – other people love to talk, especially when it seems like someone is taking an interest in them. Friendships may or may not develop from this point, but in the very least, you’ll have positive conversations with people, which will help.
Eat a Healthy Diet, Especially “Raw” Fruits and Vegetables
For me, a sad mood often nudges me into a cycle of not eating as well as I should, but what’s particularly interesting is that such a routine will often sustain negative moods. The opposite is also true – eating a lot of fruits and vegetables, especially minimally processed ones, is linked to better moods.
This one’s easy to add to any life.
Identify fruits you enjoy, buy them at the store, and consume them as snacks. What fruits do you like? Just buy those and keep them around. I’m partial to apples (particularly Pink Lady apples), bananas, and grapefruits, so I just keep some around in the fruit bowl in our kitchen and try to grab them as snacks regularly, at least once or twice a day. Variety is good, but don’t eat fruits you hate.
Identify vegetables you enjoy and eat them prepared as simply as possible as part of a daily meal. Again, I just look for vegetables that our whole family (or most of our family) enjoys and I am to prepare them in a simple way as part of our evening meal together. Sometimes, I’ll even make a lunch out of them for myself – for example, I love cooked Brussels sprouts with just a bit of seasoning on them, and I love raw small cucumbers (before the skin becomes bitter, as it can with big ones). Variety is good, but don’t eat vegetables you hate.
Make this your normal habit. This should be something you stick with for long enough until a day doesn’t seem normal without an apple (or whatever fruit) for a snack and without some veggies with a meal. Keep plugging away, every day, until you don’t even have to think about it. Your mood and your body will thank you long term.
Spend Less Time in Front of a Screen
The modern world is loaded with screen time. Television, computers, smart phones, tablets – they all keep our eyes glued to a screen. Yet, there is ample evidence that more screen time reduces our mood, and reducing screen time lifts our mood. Naturally, there are benefits to limited screen time for very specific purposes, like setting up face-to-face meetings or looking up specific pieces of information, but simply staring at a screen absorbing content has a mood-dampening effect, especially the more you do it.
This is a very strong tool for lifting my own mood. I find that my mood spirals downward if I spend more time in front of a screen without creating anything (meaning that if I’m actively writing, it doesn’t seem to negatively impact my mood). What does dampen my mood is social media, television without specific purpose, web browsing without specific purpose, and so on. It’s easy to think that I have a purpose in doing those things, but most of the time spent doing those things is really purposeless.
Here are some things I do to curb this.
Have lots of hobbies that don’t involve screen time. Find things to do that don’t involve staring at a screen. Cooking, playing board games, reading books, exercising, making things – as long as you’re not looking at your screen for much of your hobby time, you’re good.
Intentionally limit your non-work screen time. Simply restrict yourself to, say, one hour of screen time outside of work. Set a timer when you sit down to watch television or surf websites and when that hour is up, turn it off and don’t turn it on again until tomorrow. Find something else (anything else) to do.
Do things with other people face-to-face. If you find you’re struggling to keep away from screens, go do something with a friend. That social pull will keep you away from screens (with a bit of help from the next tip) and the conversation will also help lift your mood.
Use “do not disturb” mode frequently on my phone. Nothing drags me into unplanned screen time quite as efficiently as a notification on my phone. I want that information, but it often results in time spent staring at a screen without purpose, and that ends up being a negative. Thus, whenever I’m doing anything worthwhile away from my screen, I turn on “do not disturb” mode, where the only thing that gets through are calls and texts from immediate family.
Over the last few years, I have become an enormous believer in the power of meditation to improve your mood and help clarify and focus your thinking (among other benefits). The positive mood benefits of meditation are starting to become medically clear, too – it really can help lift your mood if you make it into a daily practice.
Here are some tips to get started. They really helped me when I was first learning to do this.
Use an extremely simple meditation technique. Sit in a comfortable chair. Close your eyes. Focus on nothing but your breath. Breathe in. Breathe out. Your mind will wander and that’s okay – when you notice that it has, bring it back to your breath. Breathe in. Breathe out. Do this for a minute at a time at first, then make the periods longer as you get more used to it. The benefits to this are subtle but real, and they grow if you stick with it on at least a daily basis for a long period of time.
Meditate daily or even more frequently, but just for very brief periods at first. Make an appointment to do this. I meditate twice a day, in the morning and evening.
Stick with it! It took more than a month of daily meditation for me to notice any sort of change. I decided to stick with it for a “90 day challenge” and after the first thirty days, it didn’t help. It was only after about 40 or so days of daily meditation that I started to notice benefits (better focus, better mood, easier to stay calm, etc.), and it might take even longer for you. I attribute the benefits to meditation because every time I stop doing it daily, after a handful of days, the benefits fade. I find myself feeling a little less content with life and a little quicker to emotion and a little worse at focusing, enough that I really notice it. (There are other benefits to meditation, too, but they vary from person to person and are best self-discovered.)
Laughter has long been known to be a mood lifter, and science backs this up, pointing to laughter as a mood lifter and stress reliever. I know that I certainly feel good after some deep laughter, and it lasts for a surprisingly long time.
The problem is, you can’t just sit around and laugh without something striking up the laughter. My solution to that is to try to have things in my life that can become a source of laughter for me. Kids are the best solution I know of for this, but that doesn’t work for everyone. However, if you do have kids, spend some lighthearted time with them and you’ll almost always end up laughing.
What else works?
Spend time with friends. Yep, this synergizes perfectly with the “talk to good people” advice above. Just go hang out with good friends, especially ones with a light heart, and laughter will likely follow naturally.
Watch a comedy movie. Pick out a comedic film featuring actors and actresses you enjoy. Watch it. You’ll most likely laugh along the way.
Try new things. This works extremely well for me. For some reason, I find my failures at the simple beginning steps of trying something new to be endlessly hilarious. The single day in my life I can remember with the most laughter was the day I decided to learn how to skateboard with a few friends. I was terrible at it (and I still am), but it was hilarious trying to learn.
On the flip side of laughter, crying is actually a good mood lifter as it provides a release for negative feelings, and there’s research backing that up. We often feel a lot better after crying.
Sometimes, a melancholic mood makes it easier to cry, but we often need something specific to make it happen. Here are a few things I rely on.
Look at family pictures and videos. Looking at photos of relatives who have passed on and that I dearly miss brings a mix of joy and sadness to me that can sometimes pull out the tears. I tap a similar vein when I look at pictures of my children when they were very young, or pictures of Sarah and I when we were younger.
Watch a “tearjerker.” This is going to sound a bit strange, but for me the film that really pulls this off is Field of Dreams. I can’t make it through the last 15 minutes of that film without some tears. It’s basically impossible. Yet, I almost always feel much better after watching it.
Recall peak emotional moments in your life. Think back into your past and recall moments where you were almost overwhelmed with the impact of the event. This can be aided by pictures and books, but I find that memories tend to work pretty much just as well.
Read a Book
It turns out that getting lost in a book is a surprisingly great way to lift your mood. Whether you’re lost in a story or lost in a sea of ideas, it’s that state of “getting lost” while your mind is actively working that seems to trigger the mood lifting.
In truth, I think this is actually just a form of getting into a flow state, which I find to be perhaps the best mood lifter I have access to. I find it very easy to get into a flow state when reading an engrossing book or challenging (but comprehensible) book. (A flow state occurs when you’re so mentally and/or physically engrossed and actively engaged in something that you lose track of time.)
Books are one key way to do this, at least for me, and it appears to have mood benefits for many people.
So, how do you do it? Well, read, of course. Find a book that seems really interesting to you that you’re pretty sure you’ll like, and dig in. It’s that simple.
Turn off distractions while you read. Put your phone in “do not disturb” mode. Go to the bathroom before you dig in, and get a glass of water to sit beside you. Find a comfortable chair in which to sit. That way, you’ll minimize the chances of interruption while reading.
Give yourself plenty of time. Don’t read for just three minutes and stop. Rather, give yourself plenty of time to get lost in the book and allow yourself plenty of time to be lost. If I know I can get sucked into a book, I generally like to give it at least an hour’s worth of time per reading session.
If These Things Don’t Work After Several Days…
Just try incorporating as many of these things into your daily routine as you can and stick with them for several days. Make them into a checklist if that works well for you. You’ll probably find, as I have, that doing these things really does help lift your mood most of the time.
If you’ve truly tried these things for many days – not just thought about doing them and decided not to, or laughed them off as ineffective without trying them – then it may be time to speak to a doctor about how you’re feeling, as there may be issues that deserve a different type of attention. Remember, it is never a bad thing to seek out therapy, even when things seem like they should be good in your life.