#1 Dancing Makes You Happy

Time: half eight. Location: bed. State of consciousness: awake, albeit reluctantly. Now what? My autopilot script is fall out of bed, stumble across the room, open the blinds and blink into the scarcely receding gloom of another miserable January morning in London. Everyone’s miserable before noon, that’s why they call it “the mourning”. Today, though, the autopilot script is going to be torn up and scattered to the incipient drizzle. Today, I will not walk – and that includes the stumbling shuffle that usually passes for locomotion before my legs have warmed up.

I lie in bed a minute longer, figuring out my options. There’s nothing for it: I must dance. So I take a balletic leap out of bed, landing with a pirouette and a couple of moonwalks. Despite the fact I feel like an irredeemable idiot, dancing alone around my bedroom, I can’t squash the surprise smile that’s appeared on my haggard face. By the time I’ve tangoed across to the window, I’m unequivocally happy – nay! – excited about the day in prospect. London is treated to a quick “Night Fever” and I two-step to the toilet.

Dr Tal Shafir, researcher in movement-emotion interaction at the University of Haifa in Israel, describes the phenomenon I’ve just experienced: “When we make a gesture and the movements are related to a specific emotion, it can elicit or create that emotion in us.” I couldn’t have put it more precisely (I could probably have put it slightly less dryly – but that’s academia for you). Dancing is a happy movement, so it creates in me the emotion of happiness.

Shafir demonstrated this effect by teaching a group of 29 volunteers four tightly choreographed sequences of movements that projected happy, sad, fearful and neutral emotions. She then recorded the impact of these movements on the emotional state of the volunteers and found that happy movements make you feel happy, sad movements sad, fearful movements fearful and neutral movements, well, neutral.

William James, the nineteenth century founding father of psychology, was the first in modern times to argue that our bodies direct the way we feel. He illustrated the point with the sighting of a grizzly bear:

Standard pre-James Theory of Emotion

  1. We perceive (A bear!)
  2. We feel an emotion (Fear)
  3. Our body responds (Trembling)
  4. We act (RUN!)

James’ 1884 Theory of Emotion

  1. We perceive (A bear!)
  2. Our body responds (Trembling)
  3. We feel an emotion (Fear)
  4. We act (RUN!)

This might feel counter-intuitive, but that’s only because the brain is extraordinarily quick to step in and convince us that it’s in charge. If we stop and think logically for a second, though, can you imagine fear without your body’s trembling, shallow breathing and raised heart rate? This simply doesn’t happen – but the pre-James theory of emotion allows for such bizarrely detached emotion. No: as James says, “our feeling of the [physiological] changes as they occur IS the emotion”.

It’s only under his theory that Dr Shafir’s results make sense: if trembling is the cause of fear, then perhaps we can use other, even artificially induced, bodily movements to elicit happier emotions. Dancing across the floor gets my heart pumping. The physiological sensation of a raised heart rate could be a side effect of almost anything: exercise, an argument, sexual attraction, humidity, a grizzly bear. So my brain frantically digs around for a likely explanation and notices that my body appears to be making a feeble attempt at dancing. Now the brain has to settle on a suitable emotional response: anger, fear, euphoria, anxiety, arousal. My brain thinks it knows that I don’t dance when I’m tired or miserable; I only dance when I’m happy and energetic. Therefore, my brain concludes triumphantly, I must be feeling happy and energetic.

A happier and more energetic visit to the toilet I could not have had. And it was all inspired by this ridiculous positive constraint: No Walking Wednesday.

Further Reading:

Shafir, Tal, Stephan F. Taylor, Anthony P. Atkinson, Scott A. Langenecker, and Jon-Kar Zubieta. ‘Emotion Regulation through Execution, Observation, and Imagery of Emotional Movements’. Brain and Cognition 82, no. 2 (July 2013): 219–27. doi:10.1016/j.bandc.2013.03.001.

William James (1884) What is an Emotion? First published in Mind, 9, 188-205. ‘Classics in the History of Psychology — James (1884)’. Accessed 16 October 2016. http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/James/emotion.htm.

This post is an extract from the book You Are What You Don’t by David Charles. Please share, please credit!

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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