This morning, seconds after I somehow managed to pour an entire cup of hot coffee directly onto my lap, I decided that I was having a bad day. In fact, I was so resigned to my bad day, that I started telling everyone about it immediately. "Uggggggh, 9 a.m. and having bad day already!" I texted to my boyfriend, followed by 90 frowny face emojis. "Sorry, I am having the worst day," I told a woman I accidentally jabbed with my elbow on the subway. "How much worse could my day possibly get?" I mumbled to myself at 10 a.m., when I saw that the evening's weather report predicting record lows in the northeast.
Of course, nearly a quarter of the United States' population lives in the northeast. But in my mind, this news applied only to me — the world was clearly so hellbent on sending me a bad day, it didn't care if it hurt several million other people while it was at it, you know? It was classic bad day thinking — when we're in the midst of a bad day, we can easily believe that we're finally the center of the universe; it just happens to be a universe that hates us.
But are bad days actually real? Or are they only as real as we make them? Peter J. Bentley, computer scientist and author of Why Sh*t Happens: The Science of a Really Bad Day, told Popular Science that bad days exist entirely in our minds, noting that our beliefs control our actions on a subconscious level, and "statistics show that people who believe in bad luck will have more accidents on Friday the 13th." In fact, Bentley noted that "some psychologists even suggest that [thinking that you're having a bad day is] a way of subconsciously avoiding responsibility for our actions."
So if bad days exist only in our minds, is there anything we can do to stop the bad day spiral? What steps can we take to stop that first cup of spilled coffee from turning into a sign that we're about to endure 24 hours of failure, frustration, and farting in the middle of work meetings? Read on, and find a few ways to combat a bad day.
1. Realize That Since There's No Such Thing As A Bad Day, You're Not Actually Having One
Our minds seek to impose order on an essentially random world. That's why we look for meaning in coincidences — when we think about ice cream, and then immediately have an ice cream truck pull up next to us, it's hard not to believe that the universe wants us to get a Rocket Pop, right? And in the same vein, when something goes wrong in our lives, we want there to be a reason — and "I'm having a bad day" is a lot more compelling than "The universe is completely indifferent to my pleasure, suffering, or need for Rocket Pops, and I spilled my coffee due to reasons that can easily be explained by physics."
As Steve Schwartz noted on Lifehacker, "negative expectations will also cause you to interpret things in a negative manner" — and so thinking you're caught up in a bad day can almost have a placebo effect, causing you to misinterpret things that are totally not a big deal as Further Signs That You Are Screwed.
What To Do: Tell yourself that bad days are not actually real. You had a bad few minutes this morning, but that does not actually shape your day — you and your expectations do.
2. Unpack Your Feelings
Often, the idea that you're having a "bad day" can serve as an emotional umbrella, covering up a lot of other feelings that you're leaving unexplored.
Are you really so unhappy because you missed your bus, a problem that literally took up less than ten minutes of your day? Or are you using your disappointment about the bus as a way to cover negative feelings that you don't really want to explore about family, work, or your relationship? Are you feeling stressed out, overworked, or unappreciated? Maybe you had a recent experience that made you feel helpless, and you're trying to stuff those feelings away by blaming them on the unstoppable power of the "bad day" — or maybe you're mad at someone you don't want to feel mad at, and are converting that anger into frustration with petty inconveniences.
Diving into your real feelings can suck — I mean, obviously, that's why you've been avoiding them — but it can also help you find some clarity about what you're actually upset about.
What To Do: Try writing down your feelings. Not only might seeing your problems in print help you clarify what exactly is bugging you, but writing about your emotions has proven stress relieving abilities.
3. Switch Things Up
"Okay," you may be saying, "I am now aware of my crappy feelings. Whoop de friggin' do. Actually, that made me feel worse!" Yeah, getting real about your feelings can definitely make you feel temporarily worse. That's because recognizing your feelings is only half the equation — you now need to do something different to break out of obsessing over them. Taking just a few minutes to do something different can take you out of your head, and doing something new can cause our brains to reward us with a hit of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that makes us feel good.
So chase your dopamine. Eat somewhere different during lunch, use a random music generator to listen to a band you don't know as you work, sit in a different part of your office, take a five minute walk around a block you don't usually travel down. We usually rush towards the comforting, familiar stuff on a bad day — puppy GIFs, favorite songs, coffee drinks that legally qualify as a form of ice cream — but while all this stuff is fun and kind of soothing, it doesn't help our brains go, "Oh! Things are different now! Time to stop thinking the pattern of my day has already been set!" Which is what you actually need on a bad day.
What To Do: Eat the weirdest thing available on your office block. Go into that one store near your job that only sells mannequin heads. Listen to strange, new Spotify playlists. Anything that isn't familiar to you is good.
4. Don't Freak Out If None Of This Works For You Today
So you've eaten a strange new sandwich, tried your hardest to be rational, been super real about your feelings, and you still feel like a crap magnet. That's fine. Some days, for whatever reason — probably just the random coincidence of the universe that we spend so much of our waking lives trying to make sense of — things do just go wrong. Don't use your inability to talk yourself out of having a bad day as further proof that the world sucks. Just be kind to yourself. Try your hardest to take things easy on yourself for the day, and use that same capacity to believe that one day can be all bad to believe that tomorrow will be all good. In the end, it's just one day, right?
What To Do: Just try to remain calm, and wait for the day to end. Remember, you can't knock that cup of coffee over every time.