1. Do a good deed. Be selfless, if only for selfish reason; you’ll benefit as much as the person you’re helping. When I’m feeling low, forcing myself to do something for someone else's benefit seems particularly hard, but then it gives me a big boost. As Montaigne observed, “These testimonies of a good conscience are pleasant; and such a natural pleasure is very beneficial to us; it is the only payment that can never fail.” In the same vein…
2. Make small gestures of good citizenship. Bring your old magazines to the gym so other people can read them. Pick up trash that other people have left on the subway. Sign up to be an organ donor.
3. Keep a resolution. Not only will you benefit from exercising or cleaning out your garage, you’ll also get a boost from the mere fact that you made a commitment and stuck to it. Feeling so overtaxed that you can't face the thought of trying to keep a resolution? Try this one: Make your bed. Just do that one thing. I know it sounds a bit preposterous, but many people have told me what a lift they've received from that small act.
4. Become an expert. There’s great satisfaction in mastery. Pick a subject that interests you, and dig in deep: the American Revolution, the works of Chekhov, wine, The Wire (my husband and I are currently obsessed with this TV show).
5. Boost your energy. Studies show that when you’re feeling energetic, you’re much more likely to feel good about yourself. For a quick shot of energy, take a brisk ten-minute walk (outside, if possible, where sunlight will also stimulate your brain), listen to some great music, or talk to a friend.
6. Challenge yourself physically. This tip doesn’t work for me, but I know that many people feel great after para-sailing, white-water rafting, surfing, or rollercoaster-riding.
7. Face a fear. Some fears are physical (see #6), but not all fears. You might push yourself to speak in public, ask someone on a date, make a gesture of friendship toward an acquaintance, or begin an intimidating creative project. In these trying situations, I often comfort myself by repeating "Enjoy the fun of failure." And it's true, even when my effort fails, I feel good about the fact that I gave it a shot. As my sister the sage reminded me recently, "You've got to put yourself out there." Which is hard, but gratifying.
8. Make something by hand. There's something particularly satisfying about making something with your own hands, whether it's a loaf of bread, a photo album, a piece of furniture, or a fly-fishing fly. It's tangible, it's creative, it's right in front of you. Similarly, making visible improvements like cleaning out a closet can give a big boost. I get an (inexplicably) large boost just from changing a light bulb. I delay, I delay, I delay -- and then finally I change it! A triumph!