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Having a Bad Day? Here’s Why

States of mind


“I’m having a bad day.”
“Everything’s just going wrong lately.”
“I’m having a run of bad luck.”

Ever say (or think) things like that? Our brains are wired to perceive patterns, and our moods are designed to keep themselves going, so it’s not surprising that when things go wrong, we sometimes assume more things will go wrong just because of what I half-seriously call “the basic cussedness of the Universe.”

The thing is, one thing going wrong doesn’t necessarily increase the likelihood of anything else going wrong, with a couple of exceptions I’ll get to in a moment. If we roll a die and get three ones in a row, what’s the chance that we’ll get a fourth one? One in six. The chances of rolling a one, unless the die is rigged, are always one in six, no matter what has happened before and no matter what comes after. In the same way, generally speaking, running out of gas in the morning doesn’t increase the chance of spilling coffee on yourself in the afternoon. Except …

There are two exceptions, situations that can genuinely create an environment for “bad luck.” One is outside circumstances that are influencing your life in a lot of ways at once. For instance, if there are rumors at your workplace of a new round of layoffs, a lot of your coworkers (not to mention you yourself) might be feeling anxious or irritable or defensive, and that makes it more likely that unpleasant things will happen, like someone not getting something you need done on time, or arguments in the hallway over logo placement.

The second exception is more interesting, because it’s probably the most common cause of bad days, and it’s also under our control: our own state of mind. If we’re looking for bad things to happen, then we tend to be less attentive to the things we would need to do in our lives to make good things happen, and we tend to take bad things harder when they do occur. For instance, if I’m in a bad mood and showing it while walking down the street, an old friend who’s pretty sure he recognizes me may decide not to say “hi” on the chance that he’s wrong, or just because he doesn’t want to start a conversation with someone who looks so irritated at the moment. If I belatedly see the old friend walking away, I could get upset that I had been passed by. Yet seeing that old friend might otherwise have been the best thing to happen to me that day.

And so it goes.

Feeling like we’re in a rut, in a streak of bad luck, has at least two major components: the chemicals in our brain, which influence our mood (our neurochemistry) and our thoughts, the running commentary we’re giving ourselves on our own lives (cognition). Both of these things influence each other: for instance, low levels of serotonin in the brain can encourage anxious or depressive thoughts, while improving mood through thinking happier thoughts seems to increase serotonin levels. (If you want the real nitty gritty details, see, for instance, “How to Increase Serotonin in the Human Brain Without Drugs” on the National Institutes of Health Web site .)

What this means is that while we don’t have direct control over our brain chemistry, since we do have some direct control over our own thoughts, we can shift from having a bad day to having a good one just through changing our thinking. This is not an empty gesture, a simple “have a nice day” bumper sticker: this is the kind of shift you feel in your gut, when you go from feeling as though something nasty is right around the corner to feeling like all is right with the world. Outside of situations that are truly terrible, like the death of someone close to you (that kind of thing is another whole subject), that sense of joy and things going right is always available to us, just under the surface, waiting to be tapped.

Friday, I’ll be following up with a post on what specific steps we can take to stop having a bad day and start having a good one.

Photo by, ironically, Today is a good day

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