Turning a bad day into a good one

Everyone has bad days. Some just last longer or happen with greater frequency. If it appears I am having a bad day I generally hope for all the coming terrible news to flood me now. Why screw up another perfectly good day? Then I can put the horrible one behind and move on.

In 2008 I had a series of particularly bad days. Over 2 years, my business collapsed, I was financially wiped out, a close family member was diagnosed with cancer, and my marriage of 24 years ended. Today I am pleased to report that I (and the family member) have recovered nicely and my life is amazingly happy and successful. But during the trauma, I learned some valuable lessons that will help you stay positive in difficult moments no matter how long they last. Since I don’t wish trouble on anyone, I wrote them here so you can learn painlessly from my experience.

1. Curb Your Optimism

Many people talk about optimism being the path to happiness and I couldn’t disagree more. Obviously pessimism is not helpful in bad times, but there is another approach. Jim Collin’s chapter on the “Stockdale Paradox” in Good to Great was the single biggest comfort to me in the worst of times. He demonstrated clearly how optimism often leads to disappointment and depression. When things are going poorly, it’s pragmatism and not optimism that will get you through. As Collins suggests: have “undying faith” that things will get better, yet “confront the brutal facts” that you may not have much control over how or when they’ll improve. This way, additional problems won’t feel like major setbacks and you’ll be able to manage your impatience and persevere through any hindrance on the way back to happiness.

2. Maintain Disciplined Structure

Anyone who is religious is familiar with strict ritual in the face of emotional circumstances. The Jewish faith, for example, has stringent rules called sitting Shiva for dealing with the death of a close loved one. People are given very specific mourning tasks for seven days, allowing them to go on autopilot rather than be lost in the emotion of the loss. In my dark times I created and adhered to a rigid schedule of productive activity like networking, writing, and physical activity. The networking forced me to engage with people so I wouldn’t feel alone. The writing allowed for creative activity and much needed emotional release. And the exercise released endorphins and allowed me to manage the one thing I solely controlled–my body.

3. Lean On Those Around You

When times are tough, many hold it in. You don’t want to seem like a complainer and there may be a degree of embarrassment in the bad circumstances. Find people close to you who will let you verbalize your issues. My friends were my strength when things got bad. Mostly they listened but often kept me on track with brutal honesty. After a while I got so tired of hearing myself complain that I was motivated simply to have good news to share for their sake. Today I am the first to support friends on a bad day, if only to listen and share truthful observations.

4. Revel in the Humour

There is humour in everything no matter how traumatic. Humour is the way we get in touch with our humanity and ridicule situations beyond our control. Given the choice of crying about a bad situation or finding the funny side, I go for the laugh every time. Laughter breaks tension, releases powerful endorphins and allows for a much needed emotional release. Next time the bad news hits, find the silliness in your situation. This helps with tip No. 3. If that doesn’t work, turn on Comedy Central and give your emotions a much-needed break.

5. Celebrate Victories (Especially the Small Ones)

No day is ever all bad. Ironically, some of my greatest triumphs and opportunities came on the heels of difficulty. Certainly the bad news at times felt like someone was swinging at my head with a baseball bat. But those were the days I would focus hardest on looking for some sign of forward progress. Any small win became a reason to pat myself on the back. Even though I often moved one step forward and two steps back, it was the smallest victory that would give me the confidence to slug it out and continue. Soon enough, that string of small victories leads to big ones if for no other reason than opportunity attracts people who win often.

6. Pay It forward

No matter how bad things got I always knew that my life was still far better than many others, particularly during the financial crisis. I did my best to find and help others who were struggling like me. Sometimes I had nothing to share but empathy and experience. But it helped build my confidence and disposition to support others in finding the path to recovery. Many of those people today are my most ardent supporters. And now our shared celebrations of success are that much more meaningful.