How to be Happy
Around the turn of the last century, the Russian theater director Constantin Stanislavski revolutionized drama by creating method acting. A key part of his approach is to encourage actors to experience genuine emotion on stage by controlling their behavior. This technique, often referred to as the “magic if” (“If I was really experiencing this feeling, how would I behave?”), has been adopted by several famous performers, including Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, and Robert De Niro.
The same technique has been used in laboratory experiments exploring the As If principle. Let’s imagine that you are taking part in a study to test the As If principle. At the start of the study, you would be asked to rate how cheerful you feel on a scale between 1 (how you would feel if you had just fallen down an open manhole) and 10 (how you would feel if you had just seen your worst enemy do exactly the same thing).
Next, you would be asked to smile. However, there is more to acting happy than simply forcing your face into a brief, unfelt smile that finishes in the blink of an eye. Instead, you would be asked to follow these instructions:
- Sit in front of a mirror.
- Relax the muscles in your forehead and cheeks, and let your mouth drop slightly open. In scientific circles, the expression that you have on your face right now is referred to as neutral and acts as a blank canvas.
- Contract the muscles near the corners of your mouth by drawing them back toward your ears. Make the resulting smile as wide as possible and try to ensure that the movement of the cheeks produces wrinkling around the base of your eyes. Finally, extend your eyebrow muscles slightly upward and hold the resulting expression for about twenty seconds.
- Let the expression drop from your face and think about how you feel. Do you feel more cheerful than before you started? What number would you give to this new feeling on the scale of 1 to 10? Most people report that the exercise has made them feel happier. As predicted by William James more than a century ago, just a few seconds changing your facial expression has a big impact on how you feel.
To boost your level of good cheer, incorporate this type of smiling into your daily routine. Create a fun way of reminding yourself to do this by drawing two self-portraits of yourself wearing a huge smile. Draw one of the portraits on a sheet of letter-size paper and the other on a small piece of paper that is about two inches square. Make the portraits as humorous and happy looking as possible. Finally, place the large portrait somewhere prominent in your home and the smaller one in your wallet or purse, and use them as a cue to help you remember to smile.
Attraction and Relationships
When people first fall in love, they tend to go out and about together and try lots of new and exciting experiences. However, as time goes on, it is all too easy for couples to get stuck in a rut. Finding themselves having the same conversations and visiting the same places time and again, they can become bored with each other’s company. Indeed, several research projects have discovered that boredom is one of the main sources of an unhappy marriage.
Psychologist Arthur Aron (he of the shaky bridge, blindfolds, and straws fame) wondered whether getting long-term couples to behave as if life was fun again would make them feel more loving toward each other. Aron recruited fifty married couples who had been together for an average of fourteen years and persuaded them to take part in a ten-week experiment.
He presented everyone with a long list of activities and asked them to rate how enjoyable and exciting they found each of the items. Next, he split the couples into two groups, and asked the couples in one group to spend one and a half hours each week carrying out an activity that they found enjoyable and the couples in the other group to spend the same amount of time on an activity that they found exciting.
At the end of the study Aron asked everyone to rate how happy they were with their marriage. Those who had spent time engaging in exciting activities (such as skiing, hiking, dancing, or going to concerts) were significantly happier with their relationships than those who had been encouraged to carry out pleasant activities (such as going to the movies, eating out, or visiting friends).
His results show that the key to long-term love involves people avoiding the lure of the familiar and instead inviting excitement into their lives. By acting as if they are out on an exhilarating date, couples can turn back the hands of time and easily recreate that loving feeling.
Clinical psychologists have discovered a similar relationship between expressions and depression. In one study, for instance, Jessie Van Swearingen from the University of Pittsburgh recruited a group of patients suffering from a facial neuromuscular disorder and measured both the degree to which the patients were able to smile and their level of depression. As predicted by the As If principle, the less animated the patients’ facial expressions were, the more likely they were to be depressed.
Similarly, dermatologist Eric Finzi has evaluated whether Botox injections can minimize some of the facial expressions associated with sadness and therefore help alleviate depression. In one small-scale pilot study, Finzi injected Botox into the frown lines of nine depressed women and then tracked their lives. The injections would have caused the women to frown less but not prevented them from forming other facial expressions. As a result, the researchers predicted that the procedure would help prevent the women from feeling sad and so help alleviate negative emotions. They were right: just two months after the injections, none of the nine women showed signs of depression.
Other work has taken a more behavioral approach and looked at the effect of dance on depression. Driven by the notion that dancing is incompatible with feeling down, Sabine Koch from the University of Heidelberg and her colleagues examined the impact of dance on depression.
Koch assembled a group of people suffering from depression and had them dance to upbeat music. Worried that any effects might be due to the music or moving around, Koch had other groups of participants listen to the same soundtrack or spend time on an exercise bike. All three groups felt better after their sessions, but those who had been dancing the night away showed the most impressive improvements.
Psychologist Peter Lewinsohn wondered whether it might be possible to help change the way in which depressives thought and felt by changing their behavior.
Depressive behavior is often about escape and avoidance. When some people encounter a negative life event, such as being laid off or the breakup of a relationship, they withdraw from the world in order to prevent more pain in the future. This withdrawal can take many forms, including spending large amounts of time in bed, avoiding their friends, comfort eating, excessive drinking, and drug taking. In addition, the person may also try to avoid thinking about future events by, for instance, ruminating on the past (“If only things had been different”) or watching soap operas and quiz shows on television. Unfortunately, all of this has unintended and negative consequences. Lying in bed and overeating might make them put on weight and so feel ashamed of themselves. Excessive sleeping and television watching might encourage their partner to criticize them. And not contacting their friends is likely to decrease the chances of being invited out, thus increasing the feeling of isolation.
To help reverse this downward cycle, Lewinsohn created a simple technique, behavioral activation. There are several versions of the treatment, but most have two main phases.35 In the initial part, people are encouraged to identify behaviors that are problematic and set some general goals. This can involve their indicating which aspects of their behavior are symptomatic of depression and also identifying desired goals. In the second phase of the process, people are encouraged to engage in the type of activities that they have been avoiding and work toward desired goals.
The emphasis is on behavior rather than on what is going on between their ears. Gone are the days of asking people how they feel; instead it is all about how they intend to change their behavior.
People who are highly motivated often tense their muscles as they get ready to spring into action. But is the opposite also true? Can you boost your willpower by tensing your muscles? Ris Hung from the National University of Singapore and his colleague decided to find out.
Hung assembled several groups of participants and asked them to keep their hands submerged in an ice bucket for as long as possible, consume a healthy but terrible-tasting vinegar drink, or visit a local cafeteria and buy healthy food rather than sugary snacks. Each time, half of the participants were asked to tighten certain muscles by making their hand into a fist, sitting down and lifting their heels off the floor, holding a pen by tightly weaving it between their fingers, or contracting their bicep. Each of these exercises was designed to make the participants behave as if they were trying hard to exert self-control. The results showed that those carrying out the exercises were more likely to keep their hand in the bucket of ice for longer, down more vinegar, or buy healthier food.
Next time you feel your willpower draining away, try to tense a muscle. Consider, for example, making a fist, contracting your bicep, pressing your thumb and first finger together, or gripping a pen in your hand. If all else fails, try crossing your arms. Another study, this one conducted by Ron Friedman and Andrew Elliot from the University of Rochester in New York, involved asking people to tackle difficult anagrams with either their arms crossed or resting on their thighs.
By folding their arms, people were acting as if they were persistent. The volunteers with their arms folded continued to persevere for nearly twice as long as those with their hands on their thighs.
The As If principle has the power to radically change people’s ideological beliefs. The same behavior-creates-belief process can also be used to shape people’s thoughts about many aspects of their everyday lives. It’s time for a quick experiment. Hold out your thumb as if you are giving a thumbs-up sign and then read the following paragraph:
Donald was faced with a difficult situation. For the past few months, he had been renting an apartment but now wanted to move out. His lease had expired, but his landlord was refusing to return his deposit. After repeatedly asking for his money back, Donald became angrier and angrier. One day, he finally lost his temper, picked up the telephone, and shouted a stream of abuse at his landlord.
What do you think of Donald? Do you approve of his behavior in this particular instance? Now extend your middle finger as if you are giving someone the “bird,” and then read the paragraph again. What do you think of Donald and his behavior this time?
In most Western countries, raising your middle finger toward someone is usually a sign that you don’t like that person, whereas giving a “thumbs up” is a far more positive signal. In each instance, whether you like or dislike a person influences your behavior. But could the opposite also be true? Could your gestures change the way you think about a person?
This mini-experiment is based on a study conducted by Jesse Chandler from the University of Michigan.
Chandler invited a group of participants into his laboratory and explained that they were going to take part in an experiment about gestures and language. The participants were first asked to either extend their middle finger or hold out their thumbs and then read about Donald and his landlord. At the end of the story, participants were asked to rate how much they liked Donald. When they read the story with their middle finger raised, they thought that Donald was an aggressive man. In contrast, when they read the story with their thumb raised, they thought Donald was far less aggressive and much more likable.
Two key implications flow from the work. First, on a theoretical level, it demonstrates how just a few seconds behaving as if can influence what you think about someone. Second, on a more practical level, if you’re struggling to get along with a work colleague, try giving this person a thumbs-up on a regular basi
When it comes to everyday persuasion, this is just the tip of the iceberg. In another study, for example, students were asked to listen to a discussion suggesting that their college tuition should be increased.
Some of the students were asked to nod their heads up and down while they listened to the discussion (causing them to nod as if they agreed with the arguments) while others shook their heads from side to side (shaking their heads as if they disagreed). The students were then asked how much their tuition should be. Those who had been shaking their heads from side to side produced much lower estimates than those who had been happily nodding away. Want to encourage someone to agree with you? Then subtly nod your head as you chat. The other person will reciprocate the movement and be strangely attracted to your way of thinking.
Then there is the issue of chairs. In another study, experimenters had participants sit on either a hard wooden chair or a soft cushioned chair and then asked them to role-play negotiating for a new car with a stranger and rate the personality of the stranger. Those in the hard chairs were more inflexible in their negotiations and saw the strangers as less likable. In short, the evidence is that hard furniture creates hard behavior, emphasizing the importance of soft furnishings in your home and office.