Update: This article was republished on Lifehacker on July 26, 2010.
Sometimes you wake up, and within the first hour or so, you know it’s going to be a bad day. It happened to me a couple days ago, and it happened to my girlfriend just this morning. So I’d like to take this opportunity to go on the record saying this entire notion of having a “bad day” is bullshit! Don’t worry, this is not a rant, there’s real science behind it. Let me explain.
A Bad Day is as Real as You Make It
Think for a minute… when is the last time you had a bad day? When is the last time a couple things happened, not quite as you had planned, and you thought, “I cannot wait until today is over!”
Here’s the thing… there is absolutely no such thing as a bad day in reality. A bad day only exists in our interpretation of reality, which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
When asked in an interview  if there is any science behind why a bad day occurs, Peter J. Bentley, PhD, writer of Why Sh*t Happens: The Science of a Really Bad Day, responded:
Yes, and it’s our fault, I’m afraid! The statistics show that people who believe in bad luck will have more accidents on Friday the 13th. Those who have a negative attitude are more likely to endow normal little mishaps with some mystical significance. Some psychologists even suggest that it’s a way of subconsciously avoiding responsibility for our actions. “It was Friday 13th, so I was bound to stick my fingers with superglue” or “Accidents happen in threes, so after the first mishap the next two were inevitable.” Of course it’s nonsense.
So there you have it, we have the ability to make a bad day exist if we believe it to exist.
Disclaimer: I have not yet read the book mentioned above, and only came across it when doing research for this essay. I have added it to my queue and look forward to posting an update once I’ve read it. If you’ve read this book and have some feedback, let me know in the comments!
Simplification Turned Against Us
The question then becomes, if we know that a bad day is all in our heads, then why do we allow it to occur? Why do we give in and throw away the rest of our day, simply by accepting and believing that we are indeed having a bad day?
The answer: it’s a convenient over-simplification.
The brain’s facility to simplify, in most contexts, is very useful and beneficial. Our brains develop symbols, or abstract representations of complex ideas, that allow us to connect the represented ideas with other ideas, and to build upon them, without having to keep the full details of every complex idea at the forefront of our minds.
In other words, simplification clears our minds, freeing our brains to draw additional connections and conclusions from complex ideas, data, and experiences.
But what happens when we simplify experiences with the wrong symbolic conclusion? This is precisely what happens when we conclude that we are having a bad day. We blame our misfortune on factors outside of our own control, in order to avoid analyzing the real reasons things happened as they did (or perhaps even to eschew our own responsibility). Hence, it is easy for us to believe we’re having a bad day. The obvious downside is that once you accept the convenient conclusion that the entire day is for naught, it will actually cause the rest of your day to go horribly awry.
I’m not exactly saying you should discard all belief in the notion of luck. In fact, a recent study published in Psychology Today indicates that people who believe in luck are in fact luckier and happier throughout their lives than those who don’t . Perhaps we should believe in good luck, but not bad luck, if such a thing is possible.
The Waterglass of Expectation
I’m sure you’ve heard of the Placebo Effect. More specifically, studies examining the neurobiological effects of placebos, such as analgesia, have shown definitively that our expectations directly impact our interpretation of reality. Medical subjects who are told they will experience pain, experience heightened pain. Subjects who are merely told that they have been given something to reduce pain, experience a greatly reduced level of pain. The only difference was the expectation each subject had going in. 
Furthermore, Robert Coghill, PhD, a pain researcher at Wake Forest, has taken MRIs of subjects and found that this placebo-induced analgesia occurs at the most basic level or our perception of pain. It’s not just a matter of patients fooling themselves into experiencing lesser pain. The brain regions that interpret pain actually show far less activity when subjects have lowered expectations for the pain they will experience. 
We’ve already established that if you expect bad things to happen, you are more susceptible to having bad things happen to you. As the cherry on top, negative expectations will also cause you to interpret things in a negative manner. So, even if the rest of your day is average, you won’t see it that way.
Experiencing the world with negative expectations is like viewing reality through a muddy waterglass. Your view will be distorted and you won’t like what you see.
Ending Our Bad Day
Neurobiology is fun and interesting, but how does this help us fix our bad day? After all, even when we know a bad day is all in our heads, it can still be very convincing and real to us when we’re having one. Here are a few steps that can help turn a bad day around:
- Reflect on the negative feeling you have right now. Is it stress? Anxiety? Frustration? What caused it? Try to label it in one to three words, but no more! For instance, it might be “frustration with clients” or “anger from assholes.” You know, something like that. Once you’ve labeled it, do not think about the feeling or events anymore. Move on and only refer back to the label if necessary.
Matthew Lieberman, an associate professor at UCLA, has shown that the simple act of putting our feelings into a word or two can dramatically reduce the effect of those feelings. When you’re angry, simply attaching the word “anger” to your feeling makes you less angry. 
- Re-evaluate the situation or events that lead to this stress. Find some conceivable positive outcome. Did you just lose a client? Figure out why, and you’re left with a powerful experience from the school of hard knocks, which you can use to your advantage in the future.
Or if that fails, try to imagine some way it could have gone worse (your mileage may vary with this technique… I’ve just found that it works for me).
Reevaluation is often much easier said than done (it’s the most difficult step in this list by far). There are a few tricks you can use to help you get in the right mindset to reevaluate your situation. These tricks rely on the fact that the brain responds to novelty by releasing dopamine, which puts you in a good mood can help to reset your outlook. 
The crazy thing is that you can trigger your brain’s novelty response with seemingly small and trivial changes. The main idea is to simply change your environment in some small way so as to cause an out-of-the-ordinary experience. Some examples (which I’ve had a lot of luck with) include heightening or lowering your chair (or moving the seat in your car slightly aft or fore, but so as to still be comfortable and safe). You may also try listening to a different type of music; if you normally listen to rock, listen to some hip hop for the day. Go for a bike ride or walk in an area you’ve never explored (again, stay safe). For lunch, go to a restaurant at which you’ve never eaten.
- Remember that the outcome of the last minute is not indicative of the outcome of the next minute. Likewise, the last hour has no bearing on the next hour, and this morning is no indication of what this afternoon will bring.
- There is no step 4, just get on with your life already!
You may also try talking to someone you trust, but beware. As stated in #1 above, thinking too deeply can cause you to dwell and can heighten your sense of frustration or anger with the events that have gone unfavorably, which may lead inevitably to the downward spiral otherwise known as “a bad day”.
Many of these ideas were inspired by or adapted from David Rock’s book, Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long. If you’re interested in why our brains work as described here, or why some of these techniques work, I highly recommend it. It’s not just a bunch of self-improvement, believe-in-yourself fluff; it explains how the latest discoveries in neuroscience and neurobiology can impact your day-to-day life.