A slight change to the state of our body can have an immense effect on our emotional state. Just like an external event, like good or bad news, can instantly change our mood, internal physiological and hormonal changes in our body also have the power to transform our emotions. Psychologists identified a number of body habits that can improve our mood and induce positive emotions in us. Three of these habits are discussed here along with the research that has tested and confirmed their usefulness.
1. Power Postures
Our posture alters the hormonal composition of our blood, and by doing so it affects our mood. Different hormones have different effects on our mental state: Cortisol is the stress hormone; the more it is present in our blood, the more stressed we feel. Testosterone is the confidence hormone; the more active it is, the more confident we feel.
Harvard Psychologist Amy Cuddy found that we can alter our levels of cortisol and testosterone through posture exercises. Cuddy defined high-power postures as postures that are open, relaxed, and that occupy space. She defined low-power postures as postures that are closed, tense, and restrict the body to a small space.
In one of her most known experiments, Cuddy asked one group of participants to take a high-power posture for two minutes and another group to take a low-power posture for the same length of time. The high-power posture group had an increased amount of testosterone and a decreased amount of cortisol in their body. The opposite effect occurred for the low-power posture group. In other experiments, Cuddy found that taking a power posture before an interview significantly increases our confidence level during the interview and our chances of getting hired.
Taking a power posture decreases our stress and increases our confidence. In the video below, Cuddy elaborates more on this topic and discusses the importance of power-postures and the way they affect our emotional state.
2. Hugs and Interpersonal Touch
Oxytocin, or the ‘cuddle hormone,’ is another hormone that affects our emotional state. When the level of oxytocin increases in our body, we feel more relaxed and soothed. According to psychologist Alex Korb, oxytocin generates a soothing feeling by reducing our emotional reactivity to negative and threatening elements in our environment. Korb argues that interpersonal touch is one of the most powerful ways of increasing oxytocin in the body: hugs, handshakes, gentle taps on the shoulder, and orgasms are all practices that increase the level of oxytocin in our body. Besides interpersonal touch, contact with warm and soft objects also has a soothing and relaxing effect:
“Feeling warm can boost oxytocin – or at least mimic its effects. So if you don’t get a hug, try wrapping yourself in a blanket and holding a mug of hot tea. Taking a warm shower can also help” (Alex Korb, Upward Spiral: The neuroscience of depression).
Our facial muscles have an effect on our emotions that is as significant as the effect of our hormones. A change in our facial muscles induces a change in our emotional state, this is what a psychological experiment conducted in 1988 demonstrated.
In this experiment, Fritz Strack and his colleagues asked one group of participants to watch cartoons while holding a pencil between their teeth. By holding the pencil between their teeth, participants were activating the muscles used when smiling and were thus producing a smile. Another group was asked to watch the same cartoons while putting a pencil between their lips, this activated the muscles used in frowning.
When participants from both groups were asked to rate how funny the cartoons were, participants from the smiling group gave significantly higher ratings: watching cartoons while smiling made them seem funnier, watching cartoons while frowning made them seem less funny. Smiling changes the way a situation is experienced.
A BBC reporter wanted to test the effect of smiling on emotions, he took a walk in the city of Edinburgh on a gloomy day and asked people to put a pencil between their teeth and activate the muscles used for smiling. Check the video below to see how this simple 1 minute exercise instantly improved people’s mood.
Smiling can change the way a difficult situation is experienced, a power posture can increase confidence during moments of anxiety, and hugs can produce a warm feeling of tranquility when we are overwhelmed by stressors.
As Amy Cuddy stated: “Our bodies change our minds.”
When our brain gets stuck in a spiral of negative thoughts, sometimes it is wise not to engage with these thoughts and instead focus on the body and, through changes to the body, induce changes in our mood.
Cuddy, A. (2015). Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. Hachette UK.
Korb, A. (2015). The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time. New Harbinger Publications.
Strack, F., Martin, L. L., & Stepper, S. (1988). Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: a nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of personality and social psychology, 54(5), 768.
Featured photo credit: Victor Hanacek – pic jumbo via picjumbo.com