Five Simple Ways to Lift Your Spirits

This weekend we returned to Standard Time—or, as I like to call it, Darkness Savings Time. This is usually a week where I can feel kind of meh, but I have made efforts to get on an earlier schedule, which helps, not to mention a daily dose of Vitamin D. I have some other simple actions that I often take to get myself out of a funk. I thought I’d share them with you. It’s good to keep a list like this handy, so that when the doldrums come you’re not sitting around waiting for the flash of inspiration that never comes. So, here are five simple things you can do to pull yourself out of a funk.

1. Get a hair cut, or shave.  I don’t shave every day; instead, I keep my beard and the hair on my head at about the same length. Believe it or not, I use clippers without any guard. Sometimes I let this go a little too long, and then on a day when I’m feeling run down, I look in the mirror and notice that I look like a wooly mammoth, which is unbecoming of anyone professing to belong to the human race. I get out my clippers, my jaw line becomes discernible once again, and usually I’m in a better mood. Total time investment: maybe ten minutes.

Those who are recently shorn often look and feel younger, thinner, and more vigorous than their bushy counterparts. What’s more, I find it to be a better solution than dressing up, which can be uncomfortable. No matter how skinny I get, there is always a point on my hip bones where the trousers and the belt start to dig in, so taking care of my hair—one of the remaining unhappy elements of the human body that evolution has yet to take care of—is often a better solution to get me feeling better about myself again.

2. Clean your house.  I came home from work yesterday, took one look at the clutter that I allowed to build up over the past few weeks, and heaved a sigh of disgust. Sometimes life gets crazy and our homes become, more or less, a kind of pit stop. We throw things here and there until the clutter mounts up to poetic proportions. This makes our living spaces unlivable, so that when we are there we don’t have the hideaway from the rest of the world that we need. As with any overwhelming task, it helps to break it down. Focus on one area that you really need to use with a sense of peace. Need to get some reading or writing done? Concentrate on your den or office. Wish you could cook a big meal for friends? Focus on the kitchen and dining room.

I actually have a studio apartment, which changes the game completely, but makes the matter much more crucial. There is no such thing as picking up a mess and simply moving it to another room—one of my favorite techniques of yore. My problem du jour is the clothing pile from Hell.  Of course, instead of addressing this yesterday, I took a nap. I needed it. And no one sees my apartment anyway. But when it is clean, I actually get a sense of comfort from being there.

3. Take a long walk. I was tempted to make running an option here, since, as I have discussed before, its benefits are manifold, but walks have their own specific up-sides. I am thinking, in particular, of their ability to reveal heretofore unseen corners of the world to the observer.  The Fall is a really good time for this. Take the opportunity to enjoy the simple pleasures that nature offers, like John Adams did in the last episode of the HBO series about him. Yesterday I was walking along Pine St. in Philadelphia when I found a tree whose leaves had turned to colors of yellow and red so that it looked like the whole thing was ablaze. Against the evergreen shutters of the nearest house, it was a gorgeous site. I should have taken a picture.

These are the kinds of things you see on a walk that you often don’t see on the drive home from work, either because you’re tired or you have to pee or whatever. I have discovered new restaurants this way, too. One important thing: Walk slow. This is not exercise; it is not a task. It is leisure, and that’s ok. Not every important thing in life has to do with making money or taking care of your family. Your own self is important too. So, leave the house, and don’t tell anyone where you’re going.

4. Call an old friend. Forget social media. Pick up the telephone, or get on Skype, and listen to the sound of an old friend’s voice. Tell him your problems, your plans, your fears, your frustrations.  We only have so many true friends in life, and these days we tend to be spread out all over the place. There are people that I don’t speak to for months or years at a time, but when we get going again, it’s like we never missed a beat. Those kinds of friendships are great, and necessary.

It’s easy to get distracted by the people around us, but often these are not our friends but rather people who want something from us and are massaging us in an effort to get it. It’s good to be nice to acquaintances, but it’s important to know that they are not our friends. Stick to your most reliable five friends, and don’t be afraid to call them when you need to. If they are good friends, they will tell you when you are full of crap, when you are lying to yourself, when you aren’t being realistic, and when you are not giving yourself enough credit.

I remember getting ready for a recital a few years ago and complaining to a friend that it wasn’t going well, that I had no business playing in public, that I should do something else for a living, etc. With each finished beer my autobiographical commentary got worse. Then the recital came. He pulled me aside afterwards and said, “Now listen, everything you said was absolutely untrue.” I needed to hear this, and coming from someone who studied with one of the world’s best percussionists, it was encouraging. I needed to hear that. Stay in touch with these people, because chances are that many people in your immediate vicinity are mere operators.

5. Sing. Music in general is beneficial, even just listening to it. Better than simply listening is actively listening, and better than actively listening is actively making. When I was a kid, I would play the piano for hours after coming home from the windowless prison block that was labelled an intermediate school. Singing in particular is most beneficial because it forces your body to use more oxygen, which gets your brain fired up. I have dragged myself to my voice lesson, thinking that I was too busy, tired, sick—whatever—to go through with this. But on those days I usually leave completely refreshed.

You could sing anything, really—maybe a song by Johnny Cash or Ray Charles. I actually recommend art songs, and before you think this is too snotty for you, hear me (or read me) out. Many of these songs have melodies that anyone can identify with, along with texts that are as sagacious as the Psalms and not half as gory. They speak mainly of love and death—which is to say, of life. Many of them are translated into English. I’ll bet you can find many of them at imslp.org. Look for recordings on YouTube.  I recommend music by Faure, Schubert, Brahms, and Grieg, just for starters. There’s a lot out there.

So you’re not a real singer? Good! Remember the words of H.L. Mencken: Anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Excellence certainly has its place, but so does recreation. And you just might surprise yourself. You might be better than you realize.  Just don’t try Liebestod the first week.

Well, there you have it, a little arsenal of weapons with which to fight the principalities and powers of gloomdom. More tools to use in the discipline of rejoicing. All the best to you.

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