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Everyone feels down from time to time. We’re human, and with positive emotions comes the possibility of negative emotions. It’s just part of life. But sometimes that negative mood can disrupt your life and cause you intense distress. When that happens, it’s time to make a change. Whatever unpleasant mood it is that you feel most often, it’s something you can change. If you follow the three steps outlined below, you should be on your way to feeling better before you know it. (Actually, you’ll definitely know it!)

1. Focus on the mood you want to have, not the one you’re currently feeling

When you’re feeling sad, lonely, or anxious, you usually want to stop feeling that way. You start to think about how bad it feels, and about how much you wish you were in a better mood. You may even start to think about how anxiety is affecting your blood pressure, how this funk you’re in is probably going to affect your ability to get motivated and find a new job, or how you’ll always feel lonely.

What you should do, instead of concentrating on the offending feeling, is to concentrate on the feeling you’d like to replace it with. If you’re sick of feeling lonely, don’t mull over the nights you’ve spent alone in your apartment. Instead, think about what it will feel like to be surrounded by love and friendship. Imagine how you’ll react to your newfound friends. Picture how you got there. Concentrate on how great it feels to share a laugh with a friend.

This is a bit like the law of attraction, except less touchy-feely. It may sound a bit silly or ineffective, but it’s not. The brain is a powerful organ. I don’t pretend there are any magical powers associated with thinking positively, but it can open your eyes to see opportunities you otherwise would have missed. Its power is also backed up by numerous studies that prove things like the simple fact of smiling, whether you’re happy or not, can cause you to feel happier.

2. Take action; don’t be passive

Once you’ve visualized how you want to feel, what it will be like, and what it takes to get there, it’s time to take action. Being passive is one of the quickest ways to make yourself feel powerless, and powerless people are not happy people. Taking action, on the other hand, gives you control over your life and makes you feel good about yourself.

Taking any action, no matter how small, can have a positive effect. It’s best to take an action related to the mood you want to achieve, though. For example, if you’re feeling sad and you force yourself to do your homework, it won’t have nearly the same effect as if you’re feeling sad and you decide to call a close friend. Unless, of course, you were sad about the fact that you weren’t doing your homework.

The great thing about taking action is that it forces you to stop thinking so hard about the “what ifs.” Instead of letting your thoughts race until you feel even worse than you did to begin with, you’re cutting them off and replacing them with something much more constructive, like thinking about what you can do better…and then doing it. If you’re truly focused on creating the best possible resume you can, you won’t be thinking about the fact that you’re unemployed. You’ll be thinking about the job you’re about to have.

3. Repeat until it becomes habit

Forcing yourself to think happy thoughts instead of sad ones doesn’t come naturally to many of us. Sometimes we actually enjoy feeling bad for ourselves—we feel like martyrs, sacrificing ourselves for the cause, or something equally ridiculous. The truth is, nobody benefits from us ragging on ourselves. It takes practice to change an ingrained habit, though, and your mood is no different. If your bad mood is just an occasional occurrence, you can skip this step, but for many of us, we keep ending up in these same destructive moods, over and over again.

You’ve probably been thinking this way for years, so it’s going to take some time for your mind to get used to thinking differently. Some studies have shown that it takes about 21 days to change a habit. If you can turn your negative or unhelpful thoughts around for three weeks in a row, you may be on your way to drastic change.

There are many tools you can use to help yourself along. One such resource would be the book Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman. When Panic Attacks is a great book to read if your mood problem is anxiety. Both of these books share specific strategies for disputing your negative (and often false!) thoughts and replacing them with more helpful ones. Reading isn’t enough, though. Remember to make conscious changes in the areas that are bothering you. Then keep practicing until it comes naturally.

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