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How to Make Bad Days Okay

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We human beings suffer from a persistent illusion that creates a huge amount of needless stress: we see today as much bigger and more significant than other days.

It seems like we should. Today is the only day we’re able to actually do anything, and the only day we can experience the consequences of what we’ve already done. In that sense, today is pivotal: what you have to do today is clearly much more relevant to your life than what you had to do on the same date ten years ago. This seems like common sense.

But this common feeling overlooks a crucial fact that would save us a lot of suffering if we could only stay aware of it: other days are “today” too. In fact, it’s the only kind of day there is. Chances are, whatever was looming huge in your mind ten years ago today had no more absolute importance to your life as whatever is stressing you out this morning.

It doesn’t feel like it though, because it seems like the person you were back then — the person those problems belonged to — wasn’t quite you yet. You were still on your way to becoming who you are. You still had some bad habits you no longer have; you were still in a job or a relationship that was all wrong for you; you hadn’t yet discovered the joy of running every morning, reading before bed, eating mostly vegetables, or a lot of the other things that might seem essential to who you are now.

Of course, ten years from now it will feel the same way. You’ll be a different person, and your life as it is today will seem distant, and not particularly relevant.

Research shows that we consistently overrate the importance of today in the scope of our lives. In 2012, a group of psychologists published a study in which they asked more than 19,000 people about how they had changed over time, and how much they expected to change in the future. The subjects were asked about their preferences, habits, and values, and how those things had changed over the last ten years. They were also asked to estimate how much they expected to change over the next ten.

The researchers found that at all ages, people consistently underestimated how much they would change in the future. For example, 40-year-olds looking back at their 30s saw that they had changed quite radically in the intervening decade, while 30-year-olds predicted relatively little change in the decade ahead of them.

From the abstract of the study:

“People, it seems, regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives.”

It turns out that at every age — or perhaps on every day — we feel like we have reached the end of history. Today always seems so enormous, so significant in a way other days never were. Everything before today’s problems, which we see as our real problems, was backstory, relevant only in how it informs what happens today.

The extra significance that seems unique to right now was there all along, in every experience you ever had. And today, this day on which you’re sitting here reading this article — along with all the worldly concerns currently weighing on you — is happening on a date that used to be tiny in your mind, just another square on the calendar, and will soon be tiny again.

It’s not that today isn’t significant, only that life’s other days are more or less equally significant, even if it doesn’t seem like it from where you stand now. Today you might look back on your high-school breakup, and all of the fretting and sobbing that came with it, as silly or even cute. But when you were there it was happening now, and it was excruciating. 

Why is this important? For one thing, it’s needlessly stressful to believe that we’re always at an important crux in life. The fact that today’s problems seem urgent and far-reaching doesn’t justify how much we agonize over them, because everything we do is far-reaching. All of our decisions, from our choice of career to whether we return a particular call or not, have lifelong consequences.

The path of life is all crossroad. But that’s what it means to be free. The sheer volume of happenings in a single human life makes each set of day-to-day problems much less significant than life’s overall course, which is what really matters, and which we are always, in every moment, free to alter.

If we could remember this reality, it would help us to be less uptight about the outcomes of our current problems. We could still make good choices, only without so much worry. There would be a lot more room for joy and humor if we learned that it’s okay for today to be a bit ugly, or unsettled, or sad. growth

There is solace to be found in simply recognizing the immense scale of our lives. A human life is too vast, too rich and varied in content, for any given day’s events to be critical to the whole thing. Therefore, our willingness to be calm in the face of day-to-day unsettledness is much more important than the specifics of what is so unsettling about right now.

This is true even of the big, permanent events: deaths, losses, diagnoses and breakups. A death, for example, is clearly permanent, but it is your relationship to that event that gives it meaning, and that relationship is not at all permanent. It will change fairly rapidly, in fact. It will be quite different a week later, and very different a year later. And by then, it will be someone slightly (or greatly) different who is experiencing it. You don’t have to bear the weight of the entire catastrophe today. Other days, and other Yous, will split the burden, in ways you perhaps can’t see from here.

But most stress, for most people, doesn’t come from these bombshell events. It comes from the endless tissue-box of little concerns that always seem so much larger than they really are, at least as long as we treat today like a different kind of day than all the rest. Once they no longer belong to today, their intrinsic smallness will be revealed.

The key is to recognize the relative smallness of these events as they are happening, and release the need for certainty about the outcome. Failure and difficulty are fundamentally okay. So are wasted time, bad decisions, disappointment and loss. All lives, even great ones, contain frequent doses of all of these things, and that means they are all less damning than we tend to think they are when they’re happening.

There will be days when you are so upset, you just can’t conceive of today as something small. That’s when it’s helpful to remember another humbling reality: your life is one of billions, and your “today” one of trillions, all of them just as vivid and inescapable as yours.

In high school I had an eccentric history teacher. He was very cordial and well-spoken, but had a burning pet peeve. He could lose his temper when students called people of the past boring or stupid.

One time in class someone said the Russian Revolution was “super boring”, and this set our teacher off perfectly. For a few moments he just stood there, fuming through his nostrils at the student. He looked like he was going to explode, but was still searching for the words.

“Don’t you understand it yet?!” he finally sputtered. “This,” he said, holding up the textbook, tapping a photograph of a crowd in a public square. “This is real like this classroom is real, like this school is real — all of these people were someone, and all of this was TODAY!”


Photos by Joe del Tufo

Arun April 20, 2015 at 2:38 am

Great one :)

Su April 20, 2015 at 4:16 am

Thank you for sharing these thoughts – they match a formula I’ve given quite often to my friends and even to myself in times of troubles: this is just a single day – not my entire life. My life consists of so many different days – so this one here, not going so well, is just one among approx. 30,000 days in my life.

BrownVagabonder April 20, 2015 at 6:09 am

I really loved this post. “It turns out that at every age — or perhaps on every day — we feel like we have reached the end of history.” You look back at your life that you’ve lived and you wondered why you spent so much time worrying about one thing or another. I went through a break-up recently – so much heart-break, pain, anxiety, crying, worrying. It was horrendous. I look back at it and I wonder why I spent so much time and energy on that person and on that break-up. It surprises me, how little I care now, and how much I cared before. Right now, I feel like I am the best person I could ever be, but in a few years, like you say, I will feel like I am better than ever before.
We put way too much significance on ‘Today’, but I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing, until you put it in this post.

David Cain April 20, 2015 at 9:32 am

It changes really fast. Thoughts about a particular big event don’t necessarily go away, but their character changes and the leverage they have over your mind changes. But at the time they seem like the whole world. I think it is possible to remember, in those moments, that they’re not. Nothing is that big.

Myron April 20, 2015 at 7:00 am

Good one today! :-)

Roland April 20, 2015 at 7:06 am

Hello David
I think this is one of your best pieces so far and quite poetic.
There is a lot of empowerment in realizing the things you state.
Over something so small as today, we can have a lot of control; and if we take control and responsibility we can improve our Life one day at a time.

Thank you for this wonderful piece


David Cain April 20, 2015 at 9:33 am

Thanks Roland.

Melodie Elaine Estes April 20, 2015 at 7:34 am

Hi, David. I love the way you think about life. As I am now close to 64 years old, I understand even better what you are saying. Looking back on how upset I have been about mistakes I made, I am now able to see how they prepared me for the me now. Perhaps making those days important and even living through the stresses of them are part of what helps to make us who we are now. The emotions we experience help us to learn to feel and how to control negative feelings. The beauty of it all is that everything works together to make us the us we are in our futures. I think it is really cool! It is hard to live through those times sometimes but they can be lessons for us or our children or friends. Because of the bad things that happen, we know better through the feelings and stress how to help someone else through their stressful times. Just a little different angle. Thank you for your gifted insights! They are so thought stimulating!

David Cain April 20, 2015 at 9:35 am

We do learn a lot from our hard times. Our suffering is valuable in that way, but usually we see this only in hindsight, and it is hard to see its value in real-time. But I think we can if we stay aware.

lynski April 20, 2015 at 8:53 am

Scoping in and zooming out…thanks for the perspective. Please never stop writing.

Jessica April 20, 2015 at 8:56 am

Hi David, I love the idea of putting every day into perpective. I try to remind myself of that constantly. Which is some days easier than others. Great post!

nrhatch April 20, 2015 at 9:21 am

Good thoughts, David.

Today matters. Today’s experiences form the foundation for all our tomorrows. A bucket is filled drop by drop.

That said, most of what we do today won’t matter one whit ten years from now. Edges soften. Mistakes recede. Recollections cloud. Pain fades.

Just be.
Just bounce.

Matt H April 20, 2015 at 12:01 pm

Just bounce- This made me smile and reminded me a Trey Anastasio Band song I love titled, “Bounce”


matt April 20, 2015 at 10:56 am

I think I have a tendency to be almost *too* forward-looking. So when I see some stressful event on the horizon, I tend to pile up a bunch of days worth of stress into the present. I think one lesson to learn from this post is that you only have to directly deal with one day’s worth of stress at a time: today’s.

Interestingly, ten years ago today I was preparing for finals and the exit exam for grad school and further, what I was going to do with myself now that I was almost *really* out of school. Today is day 2 finding out my wife is pregnant.

David Cain April 21, 2015 at 8:39 am

you only have to directly deal with one day’s worth of stress at a time: today’s.

Right, and it’s also important to remember that the amount of stress we feel is directly tied to how important we see today’s events in the context of our lives. If we can remember how large our lives are, we can be less uptight about individual day-to-day concerns.

David April 20, 2015 at 11:33 am

Today’s essay is right on time. I just returned from the Dr. and told my shoulder injury recovery is behind schedule. My mind was very unsettled on the way home thinking of all the normal coping mechanisms but I really didn’t want to spend my day talking to someone else about my angst. I imaged a future different than what I had planned and those thoughts launched like a NASA rocket. The fact is I will reach a full recovery but not on my timeline. It is comforting to be reminded that “this today” is only one of millions. Thank you

David Cain April 21, 2015 at 8:41 am

It can be reassuring to remember that all our predictions about the future are wrong or at least incomplete. We think we can see clearly how badly things are going to go, but we really have no clairvoyant ability at all. It may be better or worse than what you expect, but it will not be what you expect, because you don’t have psychic abilities.

Art April 20, 2015 at 11:37 am

Good post David. I especially like the idea of the future being a collection of different ‘yous’. We are constantly changing, and if you think you’re not changing then you are certainly on a slow downward spiral since time is going by whether you think of it or not.

David Cain April 21, 2015 at 8:41 am
jen April 20, 2015 at 11:57 am

“But most stress, for most people, doesn’t come from these bombshell events. It comes from the endless tissue-box of little concerns that always seem so much larger than they really are, at least as long as we treat today like a different kind of day than all the rest. Once they no longer belong to today, their intrinsic smallness will be revealed.”

I needed this message today. Recently I allowed myself to get all in a tizzy over a situation that was relatively insignificant. I acted out and unfortunately shared my addled thoughts with others. I wish I hadn’t. It will pass but that day of getting caught up is now costing me days of regret and stress over it. The silliest part is that it wasn’t even my tizzy, I let myself be affected by what another was feeling. I was actually fine with the situation. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t so sensitive to the feelings of others and could just keep bouncing around in my own happy bubble.

Thanks for writing.

David Cain April 21, 2015 at 8:45 am

I have been burned many more times by making too big a deal out of something than too little. Most problems aren’t worth fighting over.

Minikins April 20, 2015 at 12:05 pm

Another great reminder of ancient wisdom, where the most beautiful ring sought for a king was inscribed with the words “This too shall pass”. Whether in joy or sorrow one must always remember that no sentiment on this earth lasts forever.

It is interesting how your examples are peppered with reference to the past to explain this perspective. Perhaps with faith it is easier to refer to the future and beyond our earthly existence?

In the Bible, 2 Corinthians 4: 17-18 “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.”

David Cain April 21, 2015 at 8:47 am

I might do a post about “This too shall pass.” It is a really powerful insight but it isn’t always clear how to apply it.

Minikins April 25, 2015 at 11:59 am

Yes, it would be good to keep this insight in mind, in the absence of an inscribed ring or tattooed finger!
You could approach it from an ecological/ nature perspective.

Jeff April 20, 2015 at 6:58 pm

David… thanks so much for your insightful writing. In this post, I was particularly struck by “Life’s path is all crossroad.”… and also by “Failure and difficulty are fundamentally okay.”

I have long been of the school that life is, rather than being an either/or field of experience, one of both/and. Another way of putting it: life is a mess… a soup of an immense amount of stuff, most of which is imagined.

Many years ago, in a course about this sort of thinking, I had the thought that if I were fully present in any moment, I would have, at least a little, a sense of apprehensive uncertainty and embarrassment: “here I am in a morass of circumstance… which way shall I’ll go?… what will come of it?… how will I do?… how will I think of myself then?… how will I look to others?… etc. This lead to a realization that the messiness, the uncertainty, the profusion of choices, and the mental overwhelm that is engendered thereby, is fundamentally ok (if I might steal your phrase.)

In any case, thanks again!

David Cain April 21, 2015 at 8:50 am

I really like this thought, and I actually have found a kind of freedom in thinking of life as a “soup”. We are inescapably immersed in it, and it will always be unpredictable and messy. When we embrace these eternal characteristics of life, suddenly it seems okay — perhaps the main problem is that we think it’s problematic that life contains problems.

Nick April 20, 2015 at 8:43 pm

Mate, you manage to nail it every time. Don’t know how you do it…. Every time I see “David at Raptitude” in my inbox, I open it no matter what I’ve got on, I know its going to be a great & relevant read every time. Thanks!

David Cain April 21, 2015 at 8:50 am

Thanks Nick.

Lena April 20, 2015 at 9:28 pm

Really needed to read this today, and every day. Thank you.

Susie April 21, 2015 at 9:56 am

I wanted to come back today and tell you thanks. I read this yesterday morning, before facing a really tough day. I lost my dad Sunday, and the impact of that hit my hard Yesterday – not just the grief, but the multitude of “stuff” that I have to sort out with attorneys and funeral homes and relatives and everything that I don’t even know about yet. Yesterday was so much easier looking at the big picture knowing that I would survive this and move on. perfect timing for me.

David Cain April 22, 2015 at 8:53 am

I’m sorry you lost your dad Susie. As you know, there’s no way around the grief process, but it is comforting to know that it is indeed a process in a much larger story. I wish you and your loved ones the best.

Samuel Mandell April 24, 2015 at 10:08 pm

This reminds me a lot of when I turned 30 last year. There is a lot of significance given to that day, yet, it’s just another day. I dug up what I blogged the day after:

“I still feel young. It’s the same me that’s always been with me. In a sense a new decade is starting, and in another it’s only a day that has simply passed. One more grain of sand in my hour glass tumbles down and lands on the spent pile. When people ask I’ll say I’m 30, and will no longer feel that kindred spirit with people in their 20’s… although I don’t think I’ll feel it with people in their 30’s yet either. I’ll be in an in-between state for a while, maybe a year, until my 31st birthday breezes by.”

MertH April 26, 2015 at 2:39 pm

I am shocked by the content of this article. Very deep and special. Thank you…

Kelly June 15, 2015 at 12:00 pm

This weebsite was… hhow do you say it? Relevant!! Finally I have fouhd something that helped me.


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