Much of being an adult is about controlling your emotions — or even dampening them.
But in the end, you want all these adult-y things you do to lead to positive emotions, right? “The good life” is all about how you feel.
Yet feelings aren’t very welcome in the workplace and they’re not taught much in schools. So as adults we get plenty of practice in controlling emotions but little info when it comes to boosting them.
How do we learn about feeling good and connecting with others? I decided to call a guy who has the answers…
Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology and the director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. He’s an expert on emotions — so much so that Pixar had him help with the development of the film Inside Out. His excellent book is: Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.
Dacher has found that much of what makes you feel good and improves your relationships comes down to some simple things we all learned as kids. Stupidly simple things. But that’s why we forget to do them more often — they’re just so basic.
But just because they’re simple doesn’t mean they’re not powerful. They’re way powerful. Godzilla-in-a-pissy-mood powerful. And the other benefit to these things being so simple is you have no excuse not to do them more often, lazybones.
Alright, let’s get to it. Here’s what Dacher says we need to remember…
You have a happiness muscle. No, there isn’t a machine for it at the gym, but when you use it, you feel good and your stress levels plummet. It’s called the “orbicularis oculi.” It’s the muscle around the eyes that flexes when you give a big, genuine smile.
It doesn’t make you happy, but the more you use it, the happier you’ll be. (Crow’s feet later in life are a small price to pay for joy, I promise you.)
Some people might be thinking “So what? Yeah, smiles show happiness. Big deal.” Actually, Dacher had a similar skepticism years ago. He knew smiles were important, but he had no idea just how important…
Ravenna Helson did the longest study of women’s lives that there is: The Mills Longitudinal Study. They followed 110 women who graduated from Mills College in 1959 and 1960. (In fact, they’re still following them more than half a century later.)
Could the smiles in the women’s graduation photos predict anything about their lives decades later? Ravenna was curious to know. Dacher wasn’t. It seemed silly to him that one photo of one smile could predict someone’s future like a crystal ball. But Dacher is a nice guy, so he helped anyway…
And the study would become one of the most important he would ever be involved in. What was the result? Here’s Dacher:
The warmer the woman’s smile, 20 and 30 years later she was feeling more accomplished in her goals, she was handling stress better, she was getting along better with other people, and she was more happily married.
No, don’t race to the attic to find your graduation photo. There’s something more important you need to do: give yourself more reasons to let out a huge smile each day. Chances are it might make your next few decades much better.
(To learn the 7-step morning ritual that will keep you happy all day, click here.)
Are you smiling? Good. What’s the next dead-simple thing you need to do more often?
In his book, Dacher cites studies showing laughter improves negotiations, flirting, and relationship conflicts.
Are you adding comedy specials to your Netflix queue yet? No? Then I have to bring out the big guns… What happens when you don’t laugh?
It can end your marriage.
For couples who divorced on average 13.9 years after they were married, it was the absence of laughter that predicted the end of their bond. In the early stages of a marriage, anger and contempt are highly toxic. In the later phases of intimate relations, it is the dearth of laughter that leads individuals to part ways.
The research shows laughter does two things: it physically calms you and signals playfulness to others. And those things can help you get through the most difficult times imaginable. How difficult?
Dacher brought people who had recently lost a spouse into his lab and his team interviewed them. Some subjects laughed when they told their stories, others didn’t. And when the team asked the bereaved more questions, it turned out those giggles signaled much, much more. Here’s Dacher:
The laughers were better able to connect to other people in the process of bereavement. They were forming new social networks and new alliances. The second thing is, they handled stress better. They showed less stress over the next two to four years.
Death and bereavement are serious stuff. But serious doesn’t mean we shouldn’t laugh. Sometimes it means we need to laugh more. Here’s Dacher:
We often think laughter is not that consequential. We tell people not to laugh. Life is serious, but there may be no more serious antidote to living and no greater path to finding wisdom, than laughter.
(To learn more about how you can use humor to improve your life, click here.)
Alright, time to get more interactive. What can you do with others that makes life great? Well, we’ll need to learn about the weirdest study Dacher has ever done…
I’ll let Dacher explain this one:
A person comes to the lab and they stick their arm through this barrier. Another person comes into the lab. We give them a list of emotions and say, “Touch that forearm over there and try to communicate these different emotions.” That person clasps the arm to communicate gratitude, or they try to touch the person to try to communicate compassion, etc. Then the person who has just been touched on their forearm tries to guess the emotion.
And what happened? After receiving a mere quarter-second touch on the arm people were able to guess the correct emotion seven or eight times better than random chance. Those little touches are like a broadband connection of feelings between you and others.
Now not all emotions are correctly identified by all people. And, frankly, this explains a lot about some troubles you may have faced. What happened when a woman tried to convey anger when touching a man’s arm? And what happened when a man tried to convey sympathy to a woman? Ummm…
The male participants had no idea what the females were doing, and the males’ judgment data amounted to a random collection of guesses at what the women were trying to convey. A woman’s anger does not seem to penetrate the skin of a man. Regrettably, it gets worse. The male participants’ attempts to communicate sympathy to the females were absolutely unintelligible to the females; the males’ attempts at sympathy fell on deaf skin, so to speak.
Okay, so touch communicates feelings, but not perfectly for all feelings for all people. But touching is still vital for our relationships with others. To find out why, we need to talk about fighting in basketball…
Dacher’s a big basketball player. He estimates he’s played about 4500 games. How many fights has he seen in this game of big men crashing into one another? Zero. Statistically speaking, “That level of violence (0) proves pickup basketball to be more peaceful than randomly sampled interactions between marital partners, siblings, family members at Thanksgiving, crowds celebrating their football team’s triumph, (and) people parking to go to the theater.”
How the heck does such a physical sport produce so little violence? Because touching promotes cooperation. Actually, it does more than that: it produces success. After studying every team in the NBA during the 2008 season Dacher found:
The more the team touched each other, the better they played at the end of the year. It got them a couple of victories. Secondly, the more a player touched his teammates, the better they would play.
Want to let others know how you’re feeling? Want to be a better “team”? Touch the people around you.
(To learn more about how to use touch to improve your life, click here.)
I know what some people are thinking: “Smile, laugh, touch. That stuff is obvious. Tell me something I don’t already know.”
I feel like I’m being teased. But that’s okay. In fact, it’s perfect…
Tease The One You Love
We’re not talking about bullying here; we’re talking about playful teasing. And you may want to start doing it in your romantic relationship ASAP.
Couples that tease each other are happier and stay together longer.
The more satisfied couples were more adroit at teasing… The playfulness of their fifteen-second teasing, we additionally found, predicted how happy the couples were six months later.
In fact, playful teasing is so powerful that it’s a great idea in the middle of an argument. Here’s Dacher:
Happy couples tease a lot when they’re in conflict and they tease in these really goofy, lighthearted ways that say, “The fact that you don’t do the dishes bothers me, but I still love you. It’s not that big a deal; we can work this out.” They tease in ways that allow them to express issues of conflict, but in a cooperative and pleasant way. It predicted how long they’d stay together.
Being 100% sweet all the time isn’t the safe bet, it’s sterile. Don’t condemn or criticize, but teasing lightens things up.
(To learn the four rituals neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)
Okay, we’ve learned a lot. Let’s round it up and find out what all these things have in common…
Here’s how to live the good life and easily boost the positive emotions in your life:
- Smile: Flex that happiness muscle. (Feel free to thank me repeatedly over the next three decades.)
- Laugh: How many things prevent divorce and can help you deal with the passing of a loved one?
- Touch: Telling them how you feel need not involve telling. And you’ll be a better team.
- Tease: Free your inner snark. A little teasing makes things fun. And it makes things last.
Nietzsche once wrote:
A person’s maturity consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child, at play.
And what do kids do a lot more often than we adults do? Smile. Laugh. Touch. Tease.
Today, resolve to approach life like a big kid. Now that’s the good life.
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