I’m reading Richard Wiseman’s book Rip It Up, and have been fascinated by the numerous studies linking facial expression to emotional moods in participants, from John Laird’s initial studies to studies around the world over decades, each with slightly different approaches yet gleaning similar results.

To summarise, smiling (or simulating isolated facial movements related to smiling, such as holding a pencil in one’s teeth) left people feeling happier (even if they weren’t sure why) and frowning or making angry faces (or again, mimicking aspects of these expressions) left people in more negative emotional states at the end of the studies.

This reminds me of something Gretchen Rubin often says, that the opposite of a profound truth is also often true. So pretending and acting happy isn’t the same as being happy…but can acting happy lead to real happiness?

Monkey see, monkey do (or monkey see another monkey do, brain do)

Brain scans have suggested that some neurons in our brain fire as if we were throwing a ball, just by watching someone else throwing a ball.

If merely observing someone else doing something can start to fire up our brain as if we were doing it, what is the connection between our body language, words, facial expressions and the neurons that fire in our brain?

Fiction as empathy training

Similarly, studies have found a link between reading fiction and empathising with others. The novel we know is not real can lead to real empathy in the real world.

Sometimes the ‘as if’ can be made real

The line between ‘as if’ and reality is actually quite faint. The imaginary can quite easily manifest itself into something real.

What does that mean for us?

It means smile, laugh, express happiness and confidence. Sit and stand up straight. Literally hold your head high and keep your chin up.

Read good fiction. Because what you read will enter your brain and find a home there and may express itself in your connection to other humans.

Words matter. Those thoughts that repeat themselves matter. Calling yourself an idiot for forgetting your keys isn’t kind to yourself and that kind of thing adds up.

Or as Lao Tzu said:

Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.


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