Do you ever find yourself slouching in your chair or walking with hunched shoulders and a droopy neck? We’re all guilty of these posture no-nos from time to time, but new research reveals that poise is not the only thing lost when we give in to the temptation to slump. Such postures can send "sad" signals to our brain, darkening our mood. On the other hand, acting out certain "happy" movements has the opposite effect, brightening our outlook and lifting our spirits.
“When we make a gesture and the movements are related to a specific emotion, it can elicit or create that emotion in us,” says Tal Shafir, Ph.D., a specialist in dance movement therapy and neuroscience at the University of Haifa in Israel and lead author of the 2013 paper in the journal Brain and Cognition.
What’s more, Shafir and her colleagues found that we don’t even have to enact these so-called happy and sad movements in order to experience the corresponding emotions. Simply observing someone else carrying out those motions or silently imagining them can be enough to trigger heightened feeling in either direction.
To arrive at these findings, Shafir and her colleagues recruited 22 young men and women to take part in what the participants were told was a study on the effects of movement on the brain. The researchers selected people who specifically said they were good at imagining themselves performing motions, such as dancers and people who play sports.
The participants watched short video clips of actors performing different motions that corresponded to different emotions—happy, sad, fearful and neutral (separate tests validated that people identify them as such). The happy movements included skipping or jumping and raising the arms up in the air. Sad movements were slumping forward and closing the chest. After watching the videos, the volunteers carried out those motions themselves, and in the final test, they simply imagined themselves doing them.
The results revealed that the participants’ reported emotions not only mirrored those of the motions they performed but also matched up with the movements they watched and imagined (especially the sad and fearful ones). The effect appeared after just a few seconds’ worth of each move. While everyone might not be able to visualize themselves as well as Shafir’s volunteers did, she believes that the emotional impact of actually performing the movements should be universal.
So how can we harness the power of our bodies to get our minds into shape? For one thing, cut out depressing postures before they depress you. If you find yourself slouching at your desk or on the couch, stop and sit up straight. This will get you started toward a better mood. Ramp it up by broadening your chest and throwing your arms up and out. Jump up and down if you can, or do other rhythmic movements. To promote happiness, Shafir says to do whatever makes you happy, “If you feel bad, put on some music and start dancing.” Not a groove-shaker? She suggests acting the way you do when you’re in a great mood or getting awesome news.
And if busting out your dance moves or sliding into warrior 1 isn’t an option (at the office, say, or in the car), take a few seconds to imagine yourself doing it. It might just be enough to brighten up a dull workday or rainy afternoon.
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