To Be Happy, Try Acting Happy

The link between smoking and depression is well-documented.  Smoking can relieve depression, and depressed mood can emerge as a withdrawal symptom after quitting, particularly in people with a tendency towards depression to begin with.  Severe depression is relatively uncommon and may require medical intervention; for the more mundane blues and blahs that may plague quitters, here’s something you can try on your own – something that doesn’t take any special equipment or medication and requires no planning or preparation.

Smile.

Although we generally think of a smile as something that results from rather than causes good feelings, it has actually been shown in the Laboratory that moving your facial muscles to form a smile produces self-reported mood elevation.  (This experiment is not so easy as it sounds, since your results will be hard to interpret if you generate amusement by your instructions rather than by the smile itself; but scientists have succeeded in conducting a convincing demonstration of the phenomenon.)  Smiling has the additional benefits of making you look younger and more attractive.  It may even boost your immune system!

Improving your mood by acting the way you want to feel is not restricted to smiling; apparently the rest of your body can also be recruited for this purpose. I recently saw a fascinating presentation by Dr. Tal Shafir, a postdoctoral fellow in my Department, who along with her colleagues has conducted a study in which participants were taught to carry out short sequences of happy, sad, and neutral whole body movements.  These researchers found, as predicted, that the happy movements increased positive feelings and decreased negative feelings.  The happy movements also produced different patterns of brain activation from the sad and neutral movements. Looking at Dr. Shafir’s happy-movement photos, one of which resembled a cheerleader’s leap, I wryly asked if she could recommend something a little easier on the knees, and she responded that the critical element was probably “opening the chest.”

So next time you’re feeling glum and thinking about smoking, try squaring your shoulders and pasting on a happy face. You have nothing to lose but the blues.

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© 2009 All Rights Reserved, Dr. Cynthia S. Pomerleau
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