25 Free Things to Do to Make Today Feel Awesome

Here’s a key truth I’ve come to realize about my spending habits.

When I’m unhappy with myself or my life, I am much, much more prone to make spending mistakes. I’m much more likely to spend money beyond what we’ve budgeted. I’m much more likely to waste my monthly budgeted “personal spending” money on something completely dumb and wasteful. I’m much more likely to not maintain any discipline at the grocery store and come home with a bunch of stuff we don’t need.

That’s why I’ve come to realize that using simple strategies to keep my mood positive throughout the day makes a huge difference in terms of my spending habits and thus my finances. My goal isn’t to go through the whole day with a giant smile on my face, but just to gently lift my feelings throughout the day with maybe a little spike when I need it.

For me, these things are a huge help. My natural mood is a bit melancholic, though I’m not depressed. I’m generally not a person who wanders through life with bubbly joy running through me, but like everyone else, sometimes my moods are higher and sometimes they’re lower. It’s when I’m in those mood “valleys” that I make mistakes.

So, what are these simple (and free) mood-lifting strategies? Here are 25 things I regularly do to help my mood. Some of these are tiny and only help for a minute or two. Others last and last and provide a mood boost that can go on for days. All of them provide a powerful lift to my mood and keeps me from making mood-based spending mistakes.

Converse With Someone Who Makes You Laugh

One of the most inspirational things I’ve ever heard was Jim Valvano’s speech at the 1993 ESPY awards where he won the Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award. When he received this award, he was very ill from the effects of bone cancer, but he walked up there and gave a tremendously inspirational speech. One part of it has stuck with me always:

“To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. And number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.”

Laugh. Cry. Think. You’re going to see those things on this list.

I find that the best source of laughter is to talk to some of my closest friends. I’m lucky to have a few friends with very sharp wits who often tell jokes that will get no reaction for a while and then cause someone to burst out in laughter moments later when the joke finally hits home. Conversing with one of those friends is a guaranteed mood lifter for me, both in the moment and later on.

Watch a Movie Scene That Makes You Cry

Weirdly, whenever I’m moved to tears, I tend to feel better about the entirety of my life after that, so I don’t shy away from things that tug at my heart.

I often find that particular scenes from movies do the trick quite well for me, so what I’ll do is hunt down particular scenes on YouTube and watch them again and again.

One scene that always does this to me is this one near the end of Field of Dreams:

It absolutely nails the feeling I have about my memories of watching baseball with my father and grandfather, something deep and elemental that I can’t even describe, but I can feel on a very deep level.

Find a clip that shakes your heart. Watch it. See what happens.

Answer Your Most Burning Question by Learning

Here, we turn to the third part of Valvano’s trifecta: learn something new.

Most of us have questions inside of us. We want to understand some part of the world a little better than we did before. Taking the time to actually do that, however, is a different thing. We push that experience to the side because it’s not urgent. It’s not squawking at us like our cell phone is. It’s not demanding attention.

Whenever I take a few moments – or an hour, or whatever is needed – to dig a little deeper and scratch a curiosity itch, I almost always feel substantially better. I feel as though my understanding of the world is greater while also enjoying that sense of having relieved something that was gently bothering me. That’s a good feeling.

When doing this, I usually use Wikipedia as an overview and use the information there to find other sources that can add more detail.

Exercise Until You Have to Stop Five Times

I like going on a walk every day when the weather is nice. It brings a sense of peace to my life and I value it, but it’s not a huge mood lifter.

On the other hand, if I want to feel a good mood lifter, hard exercise does that. I go and go and go until I can’t breathe, so I stop and catch my breath for a while, and then I go and go and go again. My goal is usually to reach a point where I have to stop five times.

After I cool down a bit, I usually feel tremendous for a few hours. I’ve even joked that I feel like the “Kool-Aid man” and that I could bust through walls.

Eat a Couple Pieces of Fruit Instead of a Heavy Meal

Many days, particularly at lunchtime, I’ll skip the usual heavier thing I might eat – leftovers or a sandwich or something – and instead eat a couple pieces of fruit. I’ll grab a banana and an apple and a cup of water and eat that.

I eat just enough fruit so that I don’t feel hungry and chase it with a healthy dose of water and I feel adequately full.

So, what happens? I feel a little better, for starters. More than that, I don’t get sleepy in the early to mid afternoon, which I do sometimes when I eat a heavy lunch. Instead, I tend to get things done in the afternoon that I might not do due to afternoon lethargy. That also leads to better feelings about the day.

It’s a subtle thing, but it really makes a difference. I notice it when I eat something really heavy at lunch and feel a bit lethargic in the afternoons.

Spend at Least Two Hours Outside… Perhaps in a Park

I try to go on a nice long walk every single day when the weather cooperates (and I’m not dealing with any significant personal disaster). Doing so lifts my mood for two reasons.

First, it clears my mind exceptionally well. I do most of my “thinking” work, such as when I’m reading a book or brainstorming ideas for articles, while outside. I’ll go for a long walk or sit on a park bench and jot down notes as they come to me. I’m usually listening to a podcast while I’m wandering around, but sometimes I’ll just turn it off and listen to nature.

Second, it feels good. Moving around makes me feel more awake. The sunshine on my skin feels warm and nice and gives me a bit of Vitamin D which is great for my health. It’s also gentle exercise.

When I get back, both my mind and body feel at peace… and it feels wonderful.

Make a Giant List on Paper of All of the Things To Do You Have Floating in Your Head

This is a trick I learned from the book Getting Things Done by David Allen. He calls it a “brain dump,” which is a great term for it.

Simply pull out a few pieces of paper and make a giant list of all of the things you need to do. You probably have 20 or 30 things floating around in your brain that you need to take care of, so just get all of those things down on paper.

What you’re going to wind up with is a big to-do list, but the funny part is that it feels really good. You can feel the mental weight being taken off your shoulders simply by having all of that down on paper. It clears my head like almost nothing else.

Now what?

Do Two or Three of Those Things Immediately

Go through that list of things to do and take care of a few of them. Look for ones you can easily achieve where you’re at with the things you have in a relatively short period of time. Just take care of them.

By getting a few things done that have long been left undone, you’ll again feel pretty good about your life. It’s not fun in the moment to take care of undone tasks, but getting them done feels quite good.

Knock a few things off that list and then relax. You’ll feel happy, and you’ve really earned it.

  • Related: The Value of a ‘Brain Dump Friday’

Call Your Mom and/or Dad and Tell Them You Love Them

At the 2015 Academy Awards, JK Simmons gave a great acceptance speech in which he advocated for calling your parents:

“And if I may, call your mom, everybody. I’ve told this [to], like, a billion people, or so. Call your mom, call your dad. If you’re lucky enough to have a parent or two alive on this planet, call ‘em. Don’t text. Don’t email. Call them on the phone. Tell ‘em you love ‘em, and thank them, and listen to them for as long as they want to talk to you. Thank you. Thank you, Mom and Dad. ”

Even if your relationship with your parents is strained, stop for a moment and think of what they gave you. How much shelter they provided. How many clothes they bought you. How many meals they prepared or provided for you. How many countless activities they took you to. How many times they helped you out.

Call your parents. Tell them you love them. Tell them thanks. You’ll feel good. They’ll feel tremendous.

Play Music You Love While in the Shower and Stay for a While

I have a little speaker on the far side of the bathroom. Before my shower, I’ll get it to start playing a playlist of some of my favorite music, then I’ll hop in the shower.

I’ll sing along, tap my foot to the music, maybe even dance a little bit. It feels good. My children think it’s hilarious. I get out of the shower feeling alive.

It’s so simple and so silly, but it works. It makes me feel good every time.

Play With a Child and Do Whatever the Child Does

This is a great trick I’ve learned as a parent. If I want to feel really happy and connected with my child, I shut off every distraction and just play with them on their terms. I do whatever they want.

I might wind up in a sandbox making castles and roads. I might wind up going down a slide. I might end up rolling down a grassy hill. I might end up playing catch with a ball.

Whatever it is, if I let myself get lost in that moment, I usually end up naturally laughing and smiling because it’s so enjoyable. I feel better.

Forget Your Cell Phone and Live Without It for a While

This is pretty similar to the previous idea, but it’s a good tactic to try.

So many of us are tethered to our cell phones, turning to them constantly for distraction and entertainment. The thing is, most of what a cell phone provides us doesn’t bring any lasting joy, but it does distract us from the lasting things we might see. We miss our child’s first step or first climb to the top of the monkey bars because we’re staring at a game on our phone.

So put the phone down. Turn it off completely. Nothing genuinely urgent is going to happen. Instead, focus on whatever is happening around you. Notice any urges you have to grab your phone and squelch them hard.

Eventually, your mind will lock into whatever is happening in the moment and you’ll get a lot more meaning and value out of it, plus you’re not going to be absorbing negative stuff from your phone. It’s a big net positive.

Help Someone Who Is Struggling

It doesn’t take much. Help someone load their groceries into their car. Hold a door for someone. Help someone pick up the things they’ve dropped.

Yes, it’s helpful for that person, but it also feels good after you’ve done it. You genuinely feel like you’ve made the world a better place. You feel better about yourself.

Keep your eyes open. Look for people who can use a helping hand and offer it, with no expectation of anything in return other than the way you’ll feel after doing it. You’ll be incredibly glad you did.

Tell Someone You Admire That You Admire Them and Why

There are many people in the world, both people I’ve known personally and people I haven’t, who have done things to make my life better without getting nearly as much value in return for their efforts. I’ve had teachers inspire me and change my life, mentors guide me and shape me, and on and on and on.

It doesn’t take much effort to thank those people who have done things for you and done things that you admire. It takes just a few minutes to take out a notecard and write down a note and mail it, or even to write an email.

After you send it off, though, you’ll feel pretty good about it. You’ll know that you did just a little to lift up someone who has done so much for you, and that feels pretty good.

Share That Appreciation Publicly

You can go beyond that appreciation by sharing it publicly. Post it on Facebook, for example. Tell everyone in the world how incredible someone is for what they have done for you and for others.

What will often happen is that you’ll see lots of people coming out of the woodwork to agree with you and to also thank that person.

You’ll feel good. Others will feel good. It’s a batch of pure positivity.

Make a List of Things (5 or So) You Are Grateful For

The idea of “gratitude journaling” is a well known one, but that’s because it works. If you want to feel happy about the life you currently have, gratitude journaling does it very well.

It’s easy, really. All you have to do is write down five or so things you’re grateful for. Thinking about it reminds you of the multitude of good things that your life already has, and that makes the bad things in life pale a little in comparison.

I do this once every few days. I find that I really have a lot of good things in my life, and recognizing that makes things better.

Focus on Your Breathing for Five Whole Minutes

This seems strange, but it works. Turn off your sounds, your phone, your distractions. Lean back in your chair, close your eyes, and focus on nothing but your breathing. Breathe in. Breathe out.

If you find your mind wandering, bring it back to your breath. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Do it for as long as you can. Believe it or not, if you haven’t done this very often, you’ll find yourself stopping after less than five minutes, but stretching it out to at least five is well worth it.

What happens? Your mind relaxes. It’s like the pleasure of stretching out a tight muscle that’s been holding weight for a while, or sitting down after standing for several hours. It feels good.

Remind Yourself to Smile and Do It Often

I don’t naturally smile. My default face is pretty neutral, in fact. I don’t look upset or angry or sad, but I don’t look happy, either.

Yet it’s not hard to notice that my mood lifts when I’m around other people who smile and look joyful. If people smile at me, I tend to feel a bit better and smile back.

So why not instigate it myself?

I make an effort to smile at people. Sometimes, they’ll smile back. It’s a small thing and not a huge life-changer, but it’s such a simple thing that works virtually every time I’m in public. It works.

Ask Someone for Advice Because You Value Their Input

This seems strange, but I find that the process of asking a friend or trusted person that you actually know for advice usually ends up being a big mood lifter.

First, it can feel really good to lay out your problem for someone else. Getting that mental weight off of your shoulders is amazing. Getting help on that problem is also useful. Even better, this can often cement a bond between you and the other person.

Don’t let it be a one way street, though. Offer advice when it is asked of you. Think of it as flattering when the other person thinks highly enough of you to ask for advice.


Spend a few hours or so of your time volunteering for something that you care about. You’ll feel as though you made a genuine positive difference regarding something you really care about, and you will feel great about it.

I often volunteer for political campaigns. The jobs are often atrocious – phone banking or doing office work or fixing computers or taking signs to another building or so on. It’s boring work, but when I’m done, I always feel as though I’ve done something real to help the candidate or cause I care about.

The same thing happens with our local food pantry. I’ll go there and move boxes around and carry bags for people. It’s drudgery. But when I’m done, I feel great. I actually helped people get food on their table this week. I’ve made a difference in their lives.

Volunteer. It feels great.

Pick Up Some Trash in a Place You Enjoy

If you don’t have time to formally volunteer, do something smaller.

One thing I really like to do is just pick up trash in some of my favorite places, like the park nearest our house. I’ll take a trash bag with me when I walk, pick up any trash I find, fill up the bag, and deposit it in the dumpster at the far end of the park.

Again, it’s drudgery, but when I’m done, I can look around that park and it just looks nicer. Not only is it nicer for me, it’s nicer for everyone else that goes to that park. “But aren’t I doing someone’s job for them?” Maybe, but I know how busy our city’s parks and recreation department is and I know they’ll just go do something else with their limited time and resources.

I actually love doing this. I’m outside, walking around, getting a little exercise, listening to a podcast or something, and making the park look better. I feel quite good when I’m done.

Call Your Oldest Relative

Think of the oldest person you’re close to. It’s likely that the person you’re thinking of will pass away at some point in the reasonably near future.

What exactly would you say to that person if you knew that person was going to pass away tomorrow? How would you feel if that went unsaid?

Whatever that thought is, call your relative and talk to them. Tell that person how you feel. You’re probably going to make that person’s day, but not only that, you’re going to feel good, too. You’re going to be glad that the things on your mind were said when they still could be.

Walk to a Place Near Your Home That You’ve Never Visited Before

Just go out of your front door and keep walking and making turns until you’re in a new area. What do you find there?

I love doing this. I discover new things that are nearby all the time. Just doing this in my own little town has caused me to find a place that serves a really good lunch and this quiet little shop that used to sell sports cards with a friendly old guy that worked there. I found several curbside “little libraries” and countless free things people have left out for the taking.

If nothing else, the world seems a little less unknown and a little more beautiful and full of opportunity.

Make Dinner for Yourself from Very Simple Ingredients

It’s so easy to just pull dinner out of a package, toss it in the microwave or the oven, and eat shortly thereafter. It makes meals kind of joyless and disconnected.

Try this, instead. Make dinner for yourself from the simplest ingredients you can. Make vegetable soup, if nothing else. Chop up vegetables, put them in water, add some salt and pepper and basil, let it boil, taste it and add more spices until it tastes right, and eat it.

In the end, that soup is just vegetables in water, but it’s so much more than that. You feel connected to it and it feels more fulfilling. You feel fed on more levels than just one.

Go to Bed When You Feel Tired, Not Before, Not After

This is the last tip, but it might be the best one. Few things make a day better than having a great night of sleep the night before. The best way to get a good night of sleep? Just go to sleep when you feel tired. Don’t stay up because you feel “foolish” or “childish” going to bed early. Just go to bed.

A good night of sleep makes you less moody and more full of energy the next day. You’re better able to deal with life’s challenges and appreciate life’s little rewards.

In short, a good night of sleep makes you happier, and forcing yourself to stay up when you’re tired causes you to sleep less and makes the next day worse in exchange for merely having an extra hour of sitting around when you’re exhausted.

Go to bed.

Final Thoughts

Each of these things works to lift my mood. Some of these things help just a little. Other things don’t seem to help at all, but my mood drops when they’re absent. The end result of all of these things is that I’m happier and more joyful when I do these things than when I’m don’t.

The better my mood is, the more likely I am to be responsible with my spending. I’m less impulsive. I’m less prone to “retail therapy.” I’m less focused on my wants and desires. Instead, I focus more on my family, my hobbies, and being productive.

Try using some of these tactics to lift your mood a little, especially if you find yourself prone to things like “retail therapy.” It’ll likely help. If nothing else, it’ll probably feel good for a little while, which is pretty nice in and of itself.

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Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.