Can You Make Yourself Feel Two Percent Better?

The best self-help advice aims hopelessly low

A couple of weeks ago I woke up in a rotten mood. Like, really rotten.

I absolutely did not want to get up and deal with any of the things I was supposed to. I felt pessimistic, depressed, and laden with all the world’s woes. I had felt like that all week, and there was not a self help guru in the world who could have convinced me I had any hope of feeling otherwise.

But then my partner, who is somewhat of an expert at getting through bad days, delicately suggested a walk. Not a big one — just to the end of our road where we can see the ocean. We’ll take a couple of deep breaths of sea air once there, he offered. And then after that, we’ll turn around and walk to the bakery at the top of the road to get a treat. And then home. That’s it. Fifteen minutes, tops.

I begrudgingly agreed, expecting I’d climb back into bed as soon as we got back. But when we arrived fifteen minutes later, sugary treat in hand, I felt 2% better. Still bad, but now lingering just above outright despair. I then found the energy to make an iced coffee and drink it with said treat on the patio. I then washed my face, scraped my hair back — both things that would’ve been comically unattainable 30 minutes before—and by the time the caffeine kicked in, I was at 5% better. 

Just enough to think about starting my day. It wouldn’t be a good day, that was for sure, but I had managed to get out (and stay out) of bed. A win, all things considered.

I’m not minimizing the very real effects that a spell of depression can have on a person. I’ve been there, and I know that no sugary cookie or moderate exercise is going to get you out of it. But I think so much of the advice we’re given about how to get through hard times aims way too high. When we’re down here, we don’t need a 60 minute breath-work class, to write in a gratitude journal, or to reframe our perspective and find acceptance. We need to find a way to feel 2% better.

Often, these 2% fixes are the things you’ll find on the bottom rung of taking care of a human: Hydration. Fresh air. Sunlight. Eating something that spikes your dopamine. Basic hygiene. Making your bed or putting away the dishes. In the moment, doing these things will feel like hard work, but it’s not likely they will make you feel worse. They are always worth a shot.

Part of the hard bargain of life is that there are many different types of days. Some of them are really quite bad. If you struggle with mental health issues, perhaps many of them are. In those moments, you are not in the mindset to do anything enriching or high-minded. You don’t need advice or inspiration, you need to treat yourself with the utmost care. And I think your highest hope is to aim hopelessly low: Just try to make yourself feel 2% better.

Even if you don’t get any higher than that, it’s a reminder to yourself that nothing is fixed. You managed to make yourself feel slightly better than you did a little while ago, and tomorrow might be slightly better still. You might be low, but you can still be kind.

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