Can you smile your way into a happier life? If you make a concerted effort to change how you feel about a situation, will you really stop being bothered by everything that’s wrong? Self-help authors have been preaching this sermon for decades and while naysayers are busy saying nay, neuroscientists and psychologists have found that there is indeed science that proves the value of the practice.
I recently saw a CBC documentary called You Are What You Act that talks about the changes in the brain that occur when you pretend to be something you are not. For example, you can actually fake smile your way to happiness and fall in love by gazing longingly into someone’s eyes. You can also feel more confident and powerful by practicing power posing. There are groups of people all over the world taking laughing yoga, power posing courses and courses designed to increase feelings of love and empathy and what makes this especially interesting is that there is actual scientific evidence that demonstrates that you can change your brain chemistry and build new neuropathways simply by acting differently.
None of this was really all that new to me. Dale Carnegie, the grandfather of the self-help movement, used to say, “If you want to feel more enthusiastic, then you have to act more enthusiastic.” The repetition of that phrase is incorporated into the Dale Carnegie course and demonstrates that repeating it with enthusiasm automatically makes you feel more enthusiastic. Words and emotions are a powerful combination. This is a message that started with Carnegie and continues to be the fundamental message that drives the self-help industry. “Act like you already have it,” they say. “Feel the emotion of already being successful.” No matter whose book you pick up, all of them will tell you that changing your mindset and acting differently will lead you to reach your greatest potential.
I have spent the last few years reading up on neuroscience, neuroplasticity, and also on the emerging branch of psychology called positive psychology.
Traditional beliefs about the human brain have been that the brain you are born with is pretty much as good as it can ever be, but there are several scientific studies that indicate that notion is actually false.
Scientists now know that the brain is plastic and as such can be rewired by conducting exercises that involve changing what you do and even deliberately changing the thoughts in your head. Norman Doidge and David Eagleman have both written books on this, and there are others, too. Studies have shown you can out-think Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, depression, anxiety, learning disorders and more. Additionally, much work is being done to get the medical community educated about alternatives to medication for even the most troubling neurological disorders. Neuroscience is pointing toward a new reality. Nobody needs to be locked in a diagnosis anymore. Change your brain chemistry naturally and you can change the direction of your life.
Shawn Achor is a psychologist and author of a book called The Happiness Advantage. Achor conducted numerous studies on human potential and happiness to study the relationship between success and happiness. Achor ultimately debunked the myth that happiness will come once you land the big job, or reach that amazing goal. What Achor discovered and was able to verify scientifically, was that happy people are more apt to become successful people and not the other way around. He was also able to show how our emotions and attitudes affect those around us. Well-known personal development leader, Jim Rohn is famous for saying that you will be the average of the seven people you spend the most time with. Through his experiments, Shawn Achor proved that this is true. Our moods and attitudes are contagious.
That news doesn’t surprise me. I noticed some time ago that depressed people are depressing to be around and that genuinely happy people are nice to be around. I have first-hand experience with the chronically depressed. My father, my sister, both husbands, and even my daughter and stepdaughter all have had their battles with depression. I know it’s tough. We on the sidelines are often helpless to make a difference.
My daughter, like most girls at the age of 15 was embroiled in teenaged angst but the sad truth is that she actually became depressed as a young child of six. Her depression was triggered by a move to a different school and neighbourhood. My daughter lost her social network and she was much taller than the other kids in her class, so she felt very out of place. I tried everything I could think of to help her, but she remained miserable for the next ten years. At the age of 10 or so, she was diagnosed with ADHD, so she went on Concerta to help her control her impulsivity and attention. At 15 she was prescribed antidepressants and was given therapy for obsessive-compulsive disorder. Her anxiety levels were very high and she was very unhappy. She went off the rails for a while. Two weeks after her 16th birthday she left home. I was heartbroken and at a loss as to how to help her. I was worried sick for her safety and well being.
To her great credit, 16-year-old Celeste soon had an epiphany that few people ever have. She realized that she alone was responsible for her happiness and that if she wanted to be happier, then she should eliminate her relationships with depressing people, stop talking about being miserable and start acting happy. She took herself off all medication and took responsibility for her own mental health by changing her attitudes and behaviours. When she was about 20, she told me what she did and said to me, “Now at work, everyone calls me Smiley.” Celeste? That sad-faced kid who moped around for most of her life? Yes. She did it on her own and never looked back. Today she’s 23, she has a good job and she’s still smiling.
Interestingly, Celeste also told me that part of her personal wellness routine is to make sure she reflects on the good things that happened during the day. She said that before she falls asleep, she names three nice things that happened that day. These can be really simple things, like petting her dog or getting a smile from a stranger. Celeste has never read self-help books and nobody told her what to do. She has intuitively figured out how to be happy and interestingly, there is actually science that supports the efficacy of her daily practices. Now, just to be clear, I am not advocating that people dump their medication, but I will tell you that if you act happy and focus on good feeling thoughts, you will definitely become happier over time. Celeste will tell you that, too.