NOTE: This post is rated R for mild strong language and some instances of crude humor.
In this post I describe one technique for correcting a bad mood—that is, for turning a dour attitude into something more reasonable. Before I begin, here are some caveats:
- I would never pretend to be an expert on mental health.
- I’ve decided it’s pointless to try to tell somebody to look on the bright side, to be grateful for what you have, etc. If a person could do that, by definition he wouldn’t have a bad attitude.
- I don’t know any way to significantly change your overall attitude or life view, in any macro sense. I’m simply documenting one method that some people, like me, may find useful in cheering themselves up during, say, the course of a day.
- This technique is probably nothing you’ve not heard before—but I’ll describe the process in detail and explain why I think it works.
I freely admit this post is off to a dull start. Bear with me though, I think it’ll get better. It’s based on a single recent case study and I have some funny stuff to report.
What do I mean, “bad attitude”?
As I mentioned above, I think you could divide “bad attitude” into two categories: macro and micro. Some people have an overall dark picture of life, many of them for good reason. If you asked a kid, “Why the sad face?” and he replied, “I work ten hours a day in a factory putting decals on crappy toys for other kids for almost no money and my parents beat me,” an appropriate response might be, “Yeah, I’d be sad too.” But other people, probably most people, are generally pretty happy but nonetheless fall into dark moods from time to time. These moods can last a day, maybe a couple, maybe a week, whatever. They’re like a headache in that they’re bound to go away, but wouldn’t it be nice to speed up that process?
I’m a happy guy. I have more blessings than I ever expected, and probably more than I deserve. I’ve even managed to mellow out over the years. But like so many people, I sometimes feel overwhelmed. No single aspect of my life overwhelms me: I’m pretty good at my job, have a decent work/life balance, am healthy, have a close family, etc. But the sheer number of small challenges I’m faced with can seem insurmountable at times. Picture a guy rolling a boulder up a hill: that’s not so bad. Instead, I feel like a guy at the bottom of a hill trying to stop any number of rocks from rolling down it. The petty trials of life can seem like an avalanche, or a game of Space Invaders.
So it was the other night. My younger daughter had a remarkable amount of homework to do, which she’d put off until the last minute, and which required parent participation. Meanwhile, my older daughter had to finish her science project, which involved me typing stuff and printing photos. By the time it was all over, and I’d set up my bike trainer for a workout the following morning, I had neither the time nor energy for anything else. My day was shot. I’d gone from working all day for the man to toiling away on kid- and household-related stuff, with nothing else in between. And still the dishes weren’t done. So I went to bed with a bad attitude: precisely the type of bad attitude this post addresses.
I suppose there are countless measures by which people try to snap out of a funk. Some self-medicate with booze, drugs, or TV. Some try to count their blessings (which just doesn’t work for me—immediate problems have a way of distracting me from what’s good). Some take the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” tack and try to cheer themselves up my reciting, to themselves, uplifting platitudes like “When the going gets tough, the tough get going!” or “When you reach the end of your rope, make a knot and hang on!” or “Grab the scissors and saws and cut out your livers, gizzards, and balls!” Okay, that last one is not really a typical platitude—I’m just making sure you’re still awake.
For me, the platitudes really don’t work. I don’t even like fortune cookie fortunes because they’re usually too upbeat and not really predictive. Halls cough drops now have little pick-me-up quips on them (e.g., “Turn ‘can do’ into ‘can did!’” and “Bet on yourself”). Will we see this become a trend? Will there be toilet paper printed with peppy little tidbits like “Fold or wad, it’s all good!” or “Have you tried prune juice?” I think the problem with these cheery aphorisms is that a person with a bad attitude is not receptive to anything positive. He cannot resist responding, to his peppier self, “Piss off!” I once went to the apartment of a person who had written uplifting platitudes an 3x5 cards and posted them all over the place. I found this depressing.
Self-medication isn’t my bag either—in fact, I don’t like to drink beer if I’m in a bad mood—but oddly enough, self-medication probably has more in common with my attitude adjustment technique than platitudes do.
The morning after
As I was describing earlier, I went to bed the other evening with a bad attitude: the feeling that not only was life a bitch, but that I myself was life’s bitch. Sometimes a good night’s sleep will correct this and you wake up feeling like Mary Lou Retton. But don’t count on it. After going to bed in a dark mood, I woke up with the same dark mood. First of all, I hadn’t had enough sleep. My bowels woke me up at 5-something, before the alarm I’d set on my smartphone had even gone off. That night I’d dreamed that I got a new smartphone that didn’t have a cracked screen, and when, upon waking, I grabbed my phone to check the time, of course the crack was still there. Worse, my smartphone had bad news for me: an e-mail announcing that the health care flex-spending claim I’d faxed in three days before had just been rejected.
I staggered out of bed, feeling like an old person. My head hurt and my eyes felt puffy. I popped a No-Doz and made my way downstairs. Because misery loves company, and as a service, I phoned my brother to get him out of bed. (If I can ride at this dark hour, so can he.) His phone rang and rang and went to voice-mail. He says the battery is too low for the phone to ring or some such thing; I’m not so sure the phone wasn’t wrapped in a sock and shoved in a drawer. If so, I couldn’t blame him. Riding this early, especially on the stationary trainer, is a real drag. I’d set up the trainer because it won’t stop raining here, and it’s been cold, and I couldn’t bear to once again hope for good riding weather and once again be thwarted.
Before I could ride, I had to log into my flex spending account and find out why my claim was rejected. (Why now, at this early hour? Because this rejected claim was probably part of a devious plot to deny me of my money, and the deadline for submitting 2010 claims was days away, and if they—the mythic, non-specific, evil “they”—could stonewall me for just a little longer they could rip me off.) The website was a monster of metastasizing windows. My claim, it turned out, was denied because my receipt was insufficiently detailed. I’d have to find something else to submit, and fast.
All the while, my limited workout time was dwindling. And, as much of a grind as this workout would be, it would probably end up being the highlight of my day: the only thing I would do, all day, that would be just for me. It was my special Dana Time and it was dribbling away.
As the astute reader may have guessed, my technique for improving my attitude is based on exercise. You may well have heard the generic advice “Go get some exercise, it’ll improve your mood,” but before you abandon this post, rest assured I’m going to be more specific. I’m going to walk you through an instance of this system working perfectly, against astounding odds.
I never feel very good at the beginning of a trainer workout. My legs, this morning, feel rubbery and lifeless, my breathing is raspy, and I am fighting with my headphones to get my music going. I worry that my second pair of expensive noise-cancelling headphones is finally shot—destroyed, like the first pair, by too much sweat. I futz with the cord awhile until I get the crackling to basically subside and the sound to come through both speakers. The music itself, which I’ve selected for its hard-driving beat and boldness, seems a parody of uplifting platitudes. One of the first songs (they’re sorted by track number) includes this passage: “My main man P-Funk ... Attracts all bitches in Cadillac on dishes, while I roll a Prism with the fuckin’ engine light blinkin’. You know you’re stinkin’ when the same gauge light on for months cause another fuckin’ complication.”
Ten minutes in, my heart rate stubbornly refuses to climb. In cycling parlance, I can’t get it up. My legs are burning but I know I’m not putting out much power; my heart rate, in the 130 beat-per-minute range, is barely within my target zone. So far, the ride has only confirmed what I was already feeling: “Sucks to be me.” But gradually, my legs start to feel better. The caffeine is finally taking effect, and my heart rate starts to climb. Fifteen minutes into the workout, I break 150 bpm and my music starts to sound really good. The current song is dark, but also funny: “Stop the tape! This kid needs to be locked away! (Get him!) Dr. Dre, don’t just stand there, OPERATE! ‘I’m not ready to leave, it’s too scary to die. I’ll have to be carried inside the cemetery and buried alive.’” My mind—which has thus far been absolutely fixated on how tired I was, and how full of hassles my life was—starts to wander.
About forty-five minutes into the workout my heart finally busts out above the target zone. It’s now beating at close to 90% of its maximum: I’m fricking hammering. For this to happen, my body needs to produce two magical hormones: adrenaline and endorphin. These stoke my system and alleviate pain. They’re what produce the so-called “runner’s high,” that feeling of euphoria produced by intense exercise. (You don’t get these from playing on the Stairmaster, reading a magazine and supporting your weight on your hands while your legs paddle fruitlessly below. You get these hormones from making yourself suffer.)
The beauty of it is, the harder you hammer, the more of these hormones the body produces, thus the harder you can hammer. The more you give, the more you get. If muscles made noise, they’d have gone from an annoying whine at the beginning of the workout to a powerful roar now. In most ways, an outdoor ride is vastly superior to a trainer ride—you get the fresh air, enjoy some speed, feel like you’ve been somewhere—but in two regards, the trainer is better. One, you can listen to music; and two, when you achieve this level of output you can just hold it there, without a twisty downhill or traffic light to break it up.
As I hammer away, a song comes on that seems a deliberate attempt to re-focus my mind on its life-is-a-grind woes, particularly the healthcare claim rejection: “Pay, pay the price, pay for nothing’s fair. Hey, I’m your life, I’m the one who took you here. Hey, I’m your life and I no longer care.”
But the lyrics cannot bring me down, as my brain has lost the thread of its earlier sturm und drang. Not just the specifics—“I’m so tired,” “I’m so old,” “The healthcare system is rigged to cheat me,” “I have no time”—but in fact the entire feeling that I’m getting beaten down. Thinking alone cannot lead the brain out of such a morass, I’m convinced. You need intense exercise, and adrenaline, and endorphins. And you can’t ride the trainer without music. Would Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” or maybe that “Walking On Sunshine” song, be even better than my dark choices? I doubt it. A good beat and rockin’ intensity are the point. An hour into my workout, I’m rocking out to this: “Whatsoever I’ve feared has come to life. Whatsoever I’ve fought off became my life. Just when everyday seemed to greet me with a smile, sunspots have faded and now I’m doing time.” Sounds like a drag, sure, but it’s somebody else’s problem, innit?
Remarkably, the benefit of the ride doesn’t end there. Pedaling a bike indoors doesn’t take much thought—I’m a hamster on a wheel, basically—and neither does the music. So my mind wanders over all kinds of ground. Since at heart I’m a grateful guy, it’s only my occasional obsession with dark thoughts that prevent me from naturally, automatically counting my blessings. Thus, now I reflect on the previous day with a more positive view: Alexa’s science project, though it took us a long time, came out really well. I’m proud of her, and moreover she was stoked with the final product.
My body firing on all cylinders now, my brain begins to revel in all variety of triumphant reflection. I think back to Lindsay’s last soccer game, one of her best yet. At one point, she stole the ball from an opponent, broke free, and tore down the field toward the goal, never losing control of the ball. As she approached the net, I was on pins and needles. There are no goalies in her soccer age group, but all the girls seem to have difficulty scoring. It’s as though there’s an invisible force field protecting the net. (As I ponder this on the trainer, my oxygen-starved brain thinks back to the force-field “transparency” in an old “Star Trek” episode.) Did Lindsay choke and miss the shot, like her dad would surely have done? No, she did not—she drilled it right in. And best of all was her expression right afterward. For a brief moment before breaking into a grin, she stared at that ball in that net with a fearsome, eye-of-the-tiger look, as if to say “Damn right it’s in.” She has the killer instinct I never did. I am so stoked about this, and as I ponder it I pedal even harder.
After the ride
The high energy lasts the rest of the ride, and afterward I’m in remarkably good spirits. My legs know they’ve done some work, but they feel good. I can bound up staircases, and my earlier head congestion is gone. And oddly enough even my vision seems particularly clear, like on a sunny day after a rainstorm. The buzz of the household, as everybody runs around preparing for school, is welcome, not enervating. In fact, much of what I look at seems almost artistic, like a still-life. As I dump my sweat-soaking cycling clothes on the laundry pile I come across a startling platitude on the label of a child’s jacket: “Always follow your herd.” I laugh at loud at this before realizing it actually says, “Always follow your heart.” The whole label is kind of a joke; it provides a black fabric surface on which to write your kid’s name and address, and it spells “address” wrong:
Post-workout, and in the context of this jacket label, my healthcare claim stalemate no longer seems the work of an evil “them” out to steal my money. It’s just the result of normal, widespread human haplessness. Sure, I’m not always on top of things, but then neither is anybody else. Maybe the best we can do is to try to keep a sense of humor about it.
“Alexa!” I call out. “Always follow your herd!”
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