How to Get Out of a Funk
Choose a few activities and get happier.
Posted Mar 28, 2019
Let’s talk about being in a funk. I am specifically using this term because anyone can be in a funk without being clinically depressed. Of course, the lucky few can both be in a funk and clinically depressed, and that’s winning the mental health lottery. I like the word “funk,” because it can mean both something bad and something good, as in both having a bad day and feeling funky, as in George Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars funky. So I am compiling this list of things to turn your Russian roulette gun into a “Bop Gun.”
This is not a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” list: I am well aware that depression can be utterly debilitating. Think of it more as a self-care smorgasbord. Doing even a few of these things can make your day better: doing all of them can save your life. This list isn’t magical: it’s not going to make unicorns dance around on your lawn unless you make some out of paper-mâché (which would make you my hero). This list is just the closest thing to magic this side of the moon.
Love yourself. Love is a verb. It is something you have to do on purpose. That voice of self-hatred, the one that makes you want to cut yourself or stop eating or jump off a building--don’t listen to that voice. That voice is a one-way ticket to hell, and not the fun, AC/DC sort of hell (can you tell I’m thinking about music?). I’m not preaching here, and I’m not talking about a literal hell. I’m talking about the utmost depths of human misery that are possible in this world. What you really want is released, and that happens when you alleviate the pressure that you put on yourself. You don’t have to be perfect, or even good. Things start getting better when you love yourself as you are, where you are. Tara Brach has a really good book about this: it’s called Radical Acceptance.
Go outside. Human beings are animals. That sounds superficial, like a truism, but we need to move around in the landscape to be well. Ever see an animal in a zoo? They don’t look happy, do they? In fact, they look listless and bored. These buildings and cubicles in which we live are killing us, and not just from mold or lead paint. Highways, strip malls, and office parks cut across the landscape, ruining our migratory routes, our countryside ambles. We were not meant to live in a box. We need sunshine and fresh air. The old 19th-century cures of taking beneficent airs and healing waters were partially correct.
Get active. Related to the above, we need to move our bodies as much as we are able. We need to walk or wheel tap our way along. I know that we live in an evidence-free age, but there is a lot of work to suggest that physical activity makes us happier. There is also a downward cycle of chronic pain in which pain leads to inactivity, which leads to more pain. The absolute worst thing we can do to our bodies is sitting at a desk all day or sitting in a recliner all day. The body and the mind are not two separate entities but are two sides of the same coin. What we do to one we do to the other. An active body is an active mind.
Read books. This might sound contradictory to the above, but books open worlds. These can be imaginary worlds, or they can be aspects or iterations of this world we currently inhabit. Nor are the real and the imaginary strictly opposed: they interpenetrate one another. Fiction controls the boundaries of our imaginations, which then feed into how we live our lives. What we read determines what we are capable of noticing and who we are capable of becoming. Reading books opens up empathy for ourselves and others. It helps us to see our lives in new ways and to understand how society forms us and how we can transform society.
Confront problems. This one is really hard, the hardest in fact. Maybe I should have saved it for last, but I didn’t. To make our lives better, we have to see what is going wrong and take concrete steps to fix the problem. Avoidance behaviors and procrastination only make things worse. If your finances are shit, you have to make a list of debts and bills and tackle them one at a time. If a particular relationship is causing you problems, you have to actually talk to the person and come to some sort of understanding. If that weird mole is freaking you out, you have to go to the doctor. If the roof is leaking, you have to call the repair company. Again, this sounds obvious, but we often multiply our problems by failing to take timely action.
Get therapy. I know it sucks to pour your problems out in front of someone. It’s much easier to hold it all inside. But talking to someone really does help, and sometimes it’s better if that person is not someone at work or someone in your own family. Sometimes you need a neutral third party, someone who can be a sounding board or a mirror you hold up to yourself. Whatever metaphor you prefer, it helps to have a professional there to help you navigate through problems. Going to therapy doesn’t make you a loser or a mental case: it makes you someone who is brave and resourceful.
Moderate addictions. I’m not a teetotaler or a prohibitionist. We all have addictive behaviors, whether that might be recreational drugs or alcohol, gambling, or video games. Some people probably need to go cold turkey, but most everyone could stand to hold back a little on those destructive habits. So maybe you don’t quit social media, but you limit it to half an hour or an hour a day. Maybe you still smoke, but you cut down to one or two a day. It’s all about reduction of harm and reclaiming time and energy for things that matter. I’m not an expert, but it seems to me that addictions are coping strategies that, at some point, became liabilities.
Write in a journal. I have come back to this habit on and off for most of my adult life. I got started on this through Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way books. I would just add the slight caveat to be careful what you write about, as writing has a way of magnifying whatever you choose as a point of focus. Don’t write a victimhood journal or a life gripes journal. That sort of writing only makes things worse. Think instead about your dreams and goals, the things that you want to accomplish. Or think about tiny little good things that happen, like when you saw ducklings at the pond or that stranger paid for your coffee.
Set goals. Make a mixture of goals, some of them small and easy and others big and difficult. If you have too many big, giant goals, your list will come to seem unattainable. But if you have too many easy goals, you won’t be stretching and growing as a person. So goals should be half to-do list and half bucket list. And here’s the thing: if those two lists align, your to-do list will naturally lead to crossing off the items on your bucket list. If those two lists don’t overlap at all, some re-evaluating needs to take place, or maybe try another tactic.
Listen to music. Learn an instrument. The function of music is to lessen the burden on the human soul. That is why every culture on earth—and probably in other galaxies as well—has some form of sonic expression. If you are taking in too much news or talk radio, you might be increasing your background level of irritation. I mean, really, politics these days is super depressing. Take a day away from other forms of media and spend some time with swing, rock, jazz, funk, hip hop, trip hop, bebop, salsa, country, blues, R & B, and let’s not forget soul. While you’re in the shower or driving home from work, you may as well sing and shake your booty.
Be weird. Be queer. Be queer and weird. I mean, if you’re straight, that’s fine, but don’t be boring. Meetings are boring: avoid them as much as possible. The color beige is boring unless it’s your thing. Then, by all means, wear only the color beige. That might actually be kind of interesting. I mean here to say that we all need to tap into our unique avenues of dorkitude, whether that’s playing Dungeons and Dragons or worshipping David Bowie or knitting sweaters for trees or collecting '90s memorabilia or making sculptures out of toothpicks. If we are going to be happy, we have to tap into the things that get our wheels spinning.
Protest injustice. Keeping up with the news can be depressing. Politicians bash immigrants and LGBTQIA+ people. The climate is changing, the bees and the oceans are dying, and no one seems to be doing anything about it. Billionaires are getting richer while everyone else gets poorer. Get out there in the streets. Organize. Write letters to the editor. Well-placed anger is not bad or wrong. Taking action actually feels better than doing nothing. At least you know that you did your part, that you will be able to look your grandchildren in the eye with some sort of self-respect.
Join something. I know you probably think you are not a “joiner,” but there are other people with similar convictions and interests. They can help you to up your game, to stay on top of developments in your field, to be more connected and grounded. None of us have the answers on our own, but we can be very smart when we engage with our various collectives. If you are very pressed for time, have no money, or have trouble meeting people, you can join online communities for free without ever having to show your face or even use your real name.
Imagine something. Maybe you hate real people and the real world so much that you just can’t cope with it anymore. We have all been there: In fact, we have all probably been there at some point this week. It is perfectly okay to check out and invent castles in the clouds. With imagination, we can make anything happen and escape even the worst circumstances.
Make friends. They can be imaginary if necessary. I had an imaginary friend named Simon when I was a kid. I haven’t checked in with him lately, but maybe I’ll ask him out to lunch. As we get older, it seems harder to connect. We no longer have the time or inclination to go get a keg and set it up in the kitchen. We have to check our lame-ass calendars and plan ahead. But it is worth the effort to put together time with a friend for coffee, lunch, or a workout. In difficult times, we can find virtual friends by always listening to the same radio show or posting to the same websites.
Adopt a dog or a cat. You can save a life by visiting your local shelter and taking home an animal companion. Not only is it a good thing to do, but having a companion animal also lowers stress and depression and can even add years to your life. A dog in the house is as effective as a burglar alarm, and walking the dog gets you up and moving. Companion animals are a welcome comfort in times of illness or when no one else is around, and they give us unconditional love (or unconditional aloofness in the case of cats) without asking for much in return.
Clean your house. It’s pretty hard to feel good if you are sitting in a garbage heap. You don’t have to go all Kon-Mari on it: just set aside time each week to straighten and clean. It feels pretty good to have no dishes in the sink and no clothes in the laundry bin. It feels good to have the bed made and the floor clean. If you have kids, this is an uphill battle, but it is one worth fighting. Living in a clean space makes you feel more together, more effective and fulfilled. That opens the door to accomplishments in other areas of your life. If you can afford it, get someone to help you.
Pay attention to fashion. I used to think fashion was bullshit. It has taken me a long time to realize that what we wear has a pretty big impact on how we feel inside. It is easier to have a good day when you feel like you look good like you are cute in your outfit and well-groomed. I would say that, for a lot of people, this is actually one of the harder things on the list. It takes a lot of trial and error and constant effort to look your best. You don’t have to spend a ton of money: you can save the earth and your wallet by going to a thrift store. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis have a great song about this. Go pop some tags.
Meditate. I have written a few books about this. I have spent so much time on this topic that I almost forgot to mention it. You don’t have to become a monk or a nun to meditate: just give it a few minutes a day to start with. It all boils down to silent listening. Just sit there quietly and observe. That’s it. It’s ridiculously simple, but somehow it leads to inner calm, increased concentration, and spontaneous joy. If you meditate regularly, you will feel as though your senses have sharpened, like the world actually has more color and detail. Weird I know, but it works.
Okay, that is my list of things to do to get out of a funk in life. If you are in a funk now, just force yourself to try a few of these activities. Your thoughts will try to hold you back, but go ahead and do them anyway. Push through the resistance that arises when you try to improve your life. It will feel awkward. You will feel afraid of making mistakes or embarrassing yourself. And you will make mistakes and embarrass yourself. Hell, I still can’t walk and drink coffee at the same time. Half the time I need to change clothes in the middle of the day, like a kindergartener.
I have spent a good deal of my life in a funk, but I think these strategies work. Things go better when I do them. It is better to be a little ridiculous, a little eccentric, and to feel alive than to be respected and taken seriously but want to die inside. Of course, it’s not an either/or scenario, but you get what I mean. We all need to get outside of our comfort zones a little bit to have a life worth living.