Being able to nip a bad mood in the bud is one of the most useful life skills a person could have.

That’s not to say everyone should strive to be cheery all the time. But if we know how to break the vicious cycle that makes a bad mood worse, we might spare ourselves a lot of suffering.

When ill humor spirals out of control, the true cause can seem like a mystery, but there’s a simple explanation that often applies. Feeling bad comes from wanting to feel good. Feeling bad is what happens when we try to feel good and we don’t get what we want. It’s a frustrated craving for pleasure.

When our mood devolves, the process might play out like this:

  1. We start by feeling a little bit down, for whatever reason — not really bad, just slightly lower than our baseline.
  2. We begin hunting for something to make us feel better. But we don’t go about this hunt in a conscious, deliberate way. We might not know what we’re hunting for. We might not be aware that we’re hunting at all.
  3. We carry out this hunt in our minds. We jump from thought to thought, hoping we’ll stumble upon something — an idea, an image, a memory, a plan — that will give us a little dose of pleasure, a small jolt of excitement, satisfaction, or relief.
  4. Nothing works. As we pursue one thought after another, looking for gratification, we don’t get what we want from any of them. The kinds of ideas and images that would usually reward us with excitement or joy are not yielding those rewards now.
  5. Each disappointing thought, each image or idea that refuses to give us what we’re looking for only worsens our condition. Every time our craving for psychic pleasure is frustrated, we feel even lower, which only intensifies the craving, and the cycle continues.

For me personally, it could go like this: I’m carrying out my normal business one day and for whatever reason, I’m feeling mildly lousy. So I think of my weekend plans and try to look forward to them. Usually that would work: I’d feel excited about the fun things on the calendar. But today I can’t experience that excitement. When I consider my plans, I’m flooded with anxious thoughts about how they could go wrong. So I turn my attention to a book I was reading yesterday and I recall how intrigued I was. But today that curiosity is gone and I can’t bring myself to care about the topic anymore. So I turn my attention to the memory of a pleasant conversation I had with a friend recently. But I’ve already replayed that conversation in my mind before and it’s no longer “new” — it feels “old” now and I can’t believe I’m still stuck on it. As this thought process goes on, I feel worse and worse. I went from a slightly bad mood to a very bad mood just by thinking of things that were “supposed” to please me.

This is a scenario where giving oneself a pep talk or trying to look on the bright side doesn’t really work. In this scenario, there’s a kind of bleak mental “weather” — clouds, fog — that prevails. In such weather, everything comes off as dull and gloomy, even the words we might try to say to ourselves in a pep talk. That pep talk backfires because we expect that it “should” do something for us, and when it doesn’t, that’s more disappointment for us, more evidence that everything’s bad.

What is the way out of this cycle?

The first step is to notice the craving that fuels the cycle. We’re craving a little bit of pleasure, a little something to feel good about, an image, idea, memory, or plan that will excite us.

The second step is to notice the ways in which we’ve been trying to satisfy that craving. We’ve been trying out one thought after another to see if it will reward us.

The third step is to ask: Do we really need that reward? Of course we want a jolt, a rush, a high, but do we really need it?

In my case, I might ask: Can I stop looking for excitement by trying to think about my weekend plans and then feeling frustrated when it doesn’t work? Can I stop expecting the book I was reading yesterday to give me the same pleasure right now that it was giving me then? Can I stop looking for boost by replaying the memory of a pleasant conversation and then feeling frustrated when that memory yields no further satisfaction? Do I really need a boost to continue with my life or can I go on for another fifteen minutes without one?

Often it turns out that the reason I “need” a boost is only that I’ve been searching for a boost. The search has exhausted me. The search has frustrated me. If I stopped searching for that boost, I’d have enough energy left to go on with my business.

If it’s a jolt of pleasure I’m craving, can I instead be content with a milder form of satisfaction? If I’m looking for a rush or a thrill to serve as my pick-me-up, can I accept a more subtle kind of good feeling? Can I notice that it feels a little bit pleasant to inhale and exhale? Can I find what I’m looking for in my own breathing? And if the pleasure of breathing’s not enough, what about walking, jogging, running, hiking, dancing, something physical?

When a bad mood gets worse, that’s because we’re craving pleasure and feeling frustrated when pleasure doesn’t arrive. The reason it doesn’t arrive is because we’re looking for it in our thoughts, at the precise time when our thoughts have none to offer.

As we hunt, fruitlessly, for gratification in one thought after another, we’re not considering our thoughts as mental constructs. We’re considering them as real things – real plans and possibilities and responsibilities and dangers and facts – all the stuff we know about and wonder about and remember – all the stuff we hope for and fear – all the stuff that’s going on in our lives. But our connection to all those things is through the mechanism of thought.

Looking harder in our thoughts won’t help. We can prevent bad moods from getting worse by learning to recognize when our thoughts are not the place to look. ■

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