Try these positive-action exercises to lift your mood and boost your confidence, increase your willpower and deepen your relationships.
People who see the glass half-full are certainly happier than the pessimists of the world, and learning to think positively is worthwhile. However, changing the way you think can be surprisingly tricky, especially when the going gets tough. What if there were a way—a shortcut or hack—that positively affected how you feel when you just can’t seem to shake the blues?
Quick and effective exercises can help you feel happier, avoid anxiety, increase your willpower, deepen relationships and boost confidence.
A few years ago, I came across a simple idea that has been validated in hundreds of experiments and has given rise to quick and effective exercises that can help you feel happier, avoid anxiety, increase your willpower, deepen relationships and boost confidence. Perhaps most surprising of all, it does not involve trying to change how you think.
The idea dates back to the turn of the 20th century and to the work of Victorian philosopher William James. Working at Harvard University, James proposed a radical new theory about the link between thinking and behavior. According to conventional wisdom, your thoughts and feelings cause you
to behave in certain ways. Feeling happy makes you smile, and feeling sad makes you frown. James wondered whether the exact opposite might also be true, namely that the way you behave can change how you feel.
According to James’s theory, forcing your face into a smile should make you feel happy, and frowning should make you feel sad. James realized that if his theory were true, people should be able to create any feeling they desired simply by acting “as if” they were experiencing that emotion. Although the potential power of his idea clearly energized James (he often referred to it as “bottled lightning”), it was years ahead of its time and received scant attention from his fellow academics.
Related: 10 Simple Steps to a Happier You
In the late 1960s, psychologist James Laird from the University of Rochester stumbled across James’s theory and decided to test it. Laird knew that he couldn’t simply ask might guess what the experiment was about and play along.
To overcome the problem, Laird advertised for volunteers to take part in a study on the electrical activity of facial muscles. When the volunteers arrived at the laboratory, Laird placed electrodes between their eyebrows and at the corners of their mouths. The electrodes were fake, but the
clever cover story enabled Laird to discreetly manipulate his volunteers’ faces into a smile or frown.
To create a frown, the volunteers were asked to pull together the two electrodes between their eyebrows. For the happy expression, they were asked to draw back the electrodes at the corners of their mouths. After they had contorted their faces into the required positions, participants
were asked how they felt. The results were remarkable. Exactly as predicted by James, the volunteers felt happier when they forced their faces into smiles and sadder when
they were frowning.
Curious about this remarkable finding, other scientists started to carry out their own versions of Laird’s groundbreaking experiment. Rather than repeatedly placing fake electrodes on people’s faces, each laboratory produced its own version of the study.
Inspired by photographers who encourage people to smile by getting them to say, “Cheese,” University of Michigan researchers asked volunteers repeatedly to make an “ee” sound (as ineasy) to force their faces into smiles, or an “eu” sound (as in yule) to produce expressions nearer to disgust.
Similarly, researchers in Germany were investigating how to teach people who were paralyzed below the neck to write, and asked volunteers either to support pencils horizontally between their teeth (thus forcing their faces into a smile) or hold pencils between their lips (thus pulling their faces into a frown).
Related: Why You Need Positive People in Your Life
Time and again, the results revealed that James’s theory was correct, with volunteers who repeatedly chanted “ee” or supported pencils between their teeth suddenly feeling much happier. In short, behaving “as if” you were experiencing a certain emotion triggers that same emotion.
Other researchers have set out to discover whether the “as if” principle also worked in other areas of everyday life. Results have shown that very small changes in your actions can have a fast and long-lasting effect on your happiness, motivation, willpower, creativity and personality. So why not adopt more positive actions in your life?
Here are 10 positive-action exercises to try:
1. Feeling Happy
There is more to lifting your mood than forcing your face into a brief, unfelt smile that finishes in the blink of an eye. Instead:
2. Moving On
Struggling to get over an upsetting choice you had to make? Researcher Xiuping Li from the National University of Singapore Business School asked each participant in a study to write down a recent decision he or she regretted. Li then asked some of the participants to seal their regrets in an envelope. Those who did so then reported feeling significantly better about their past decisions. Although they were just acting on a physically symbolic closure, their actions helped them reach psychological closure.
Next time you want some help getting over the loss of a client or a bad business decision, write a brief description of what happened on a piece of paper, put the paper in an envelope, and kiss the past goodbye. And if you really want to have fun, reach for the matches and convert your envelope into a pile of ashes.
3. The Power of Secrets
The more couples get to know one another, the more they disclose personal information. Psychologist Arthur Aron with the State University of New York at Stony Brook wondered whether asking two people to disclose personal information (and so acting “as if” they were more intimate)
would make them feel especially close. Aron paired strangers, gave them a set of 36 questions that allowed them to open up about increasingly private aspects of their lives and then had them rate how they felt about each other. As predicted, the questions promoted a sense of intimacy and attraction. When using this technique to deepen your relationship with a colleague, family member or friend, take things one step at a time and make sure you’re both comfortable with the conversation.
Here are 10 sample questions from Aron’s experiment:
4. Pull Me–Push You
If you are dieting, try behaving as if you don’t like unhealthy food. Research shows that pushing an object away from you (and so behaving as if you didn’t like it) makes you dislike the object. Whereas, pulling it toward you (behaving as if you liked it) makes you feel far more positively about it. Next time you are confronted with a plate of sugary or fried snacks, simply push the plate away from you and feel the temptation fade.
Conversely, if you are in sales and want to make prospective clients feel more positive about a product, try placing it on a table in front of them and encouraging them to slide it closer.
Related: What Separates Chronically Positive People from Everyone Else
5. Muscle Magic
People who are highly motivated often tense their muscles as they prepare to spring into action. But research from Iris Hung, an associate professor of marketing at the National University of Singapore, has shown that the opposite is also true—you can boost your willpower simply by tensing your
muscles. Next time you feel your willpower draining away, try, for example, making a fist, contracting your biceps, pressing your thumb and first finger together, or gripping a pen in your hand.
Similarly, if you want to persevere with something, try crossing your arms. Ron Friedman, social psychologist and founder of ignite80, asked people to tackle difficult anagrams with their arms either crossed or resting on their thighs. By folding their arms, people were acting as if they were persistent, and they continued trying to solve the puzzle for nearly twice as long as those with their hands on
6. Breaking Habits
You can help crack unwanted habits by behaving as if you are someone who never gets stuck in a routine. Psychologists Ben Fletcher and Karen Pine from the University of Hertfordshire in the U.K. carried out research in which people trying to lose weight were asked to adopt a more flexible approach to life (by, for example, being asked to stop watching television for a day or traveling to work using different routes). These small changes helped people break their bad patterns. Try to undo unwanted habits by behaving as if you are a flexible person and carrying out one of the following every few days:
7. How to Negotiate
The chairs that you sit in affect your behavior, which in turn affects how you think. In a study by Joshua Ackerman, an assistant professor of marketing at the MIT Sloan School of Management, volunteers sat on either hard chairs or soft-cushioned chairs while paired with strangers to role-play the negotiation of selling a new car. Those in the hard chairs sat rigidly, while those sitting in the soft chairs felt comfortable—and sure enough, their behavior was significantly different. Those in the hard chairs were more inflexible in their negotiations and demanded a higher price for the car.
Hard furniture creates hard behavior, which underlines the importance of having soft furnishings in your home and office (except for when you need to be the bad cop).
8. The Power of Warm
From an early age, we associate the feeling of warmth with safety and security1 (think hugs and open fires), and coldness with unfriendliness (think “getting the cold shoulder” and “icy stare”). The “as if” principle predicts that warming people up should make them feel far more friendly. Research conducted by University of Colorado psychologist Lawrence Williams suggests that this is cup of coffee or a cold drink, asked them to read a short description of a stranger, and then asked them to rate the stranger’s personality. The volunteers who had been warmed up by the coffee thought that the stranger seemed much friendlier than those who had been clutching iced drinks.
If you are trying to befriend someone, skip the frozen cocktails in an air-conditioned bar and instead opt for a steaming mug of tea in front of a roaring fire.
9. All Together Now
Want to get a group to bond together quickly and believe in a single cause? Get them to act in unison. Assistant professor Scott Wiltermuth from the University of Southern California gathered groups of three volunteers. Some of the groups were asked to walk around the university campus
normally, while others were formed into a small army and asked to march around the same route in step. In another part of the study, groups were asked to listen to a national anthem, and others were asked to sing along and move in time to the music. The people in each of the groups were then asked to play a board game in which they could choose to help or hinder one another. Those who had been walking in sync and singing in unison quickly bonded, and they were significantly more likely to help one another during the game. People who have bonded together often act in unison. Similarly, acting in unison helps people bond together.
10. Power Posing
A study done at Columbia University discovered that when people are put into “power poses,” they feel more confident, have higher levels of testosterone (a chemical associated with dominance) and lower levels of cortisol (a chemical associated with stress).
So if you are sitting down, lean back, look up and interlock your fingers behind your head. If you are standing up, then place your feet flat on the floor and push your shoulders back and your chest forward.
Or, if you haven’t got time to strike a powerful pose, just make a fist. Psychologist Thomas Schubert from the University of Oslo asked a group of men to rate how confident they felt, then to form their hand into a fist for a few seconds, and then to re-rate their confidence. The volunteers’ bodies influenced their brains, with the men enjoying a significant boost in confidence because they had
spent a few moments forming a fist.
Related: 15 Uplifting Quotes for Positive Vibes
Joyful Living by Joy Kouns-Lewis, PhD
Adapted from Yee Shun-Jian on August 16th, 2010
1. If you don’t eat breakfast, make it your first new habit. It doesn’t have to be cold cereal or something
prepackaged – try fruit, some quick scrambled eggs, or a bagel with cream cheese – but be sure to take advantage of this meal to start your day with high energy.
2. Try going on a gluten-free or vegan diet for a week to see how you feel. Research shows that over-processed grains tend to impede digestion, so avoid wheat and barley. You might experience a
rise in energy levels and overall improved health.
3. Get cooking. Borrow some cook books from your local library, take some webinars, or just try out
interesting online recipes. It’s much better for you than eating out.
4. Buy yourself a planner. You’re more likely to remember things if you actually write them down (no, typing doesn’t count). You might even enjoy the opportunity to check off tasks as you complete them – it gives you a sense of accomplishment.
5. Start a garden. If you don’t have a backyard, start it in a window box. Herb gardens are easy and they yield a lot of fresh flavor.
6. Once you have a garden, start composting. Your biodegradable waste products can act as useful
7. Become a volunteer. If you already do this, branch out to another location. You can choose from a wide variety of venues, such as nursing homes, children’s hospitals, animal shelters, soup kitchens, or Parks & Rec programs.
8. Take time every day to do something for yourself. Read for pleasure, make a cup of hot tea and
relax, or get some sun on the back deck.
9. Work on your communication skills. There’s always room for improvement, so edit your e-mails for
clarity and conciseness.
10. Go to your local home improvement store, pick out some paint chips, and tape them to your
kitchen walls. After a week has gone by, choose a color and give the room a new paint job. Spontaneity and change are good for everyone.
11. Go to conferences and listen to lectures to stay current in your field of expertise. No matter how
much experience you have, there’s no substitute for knowing what’s new.
12. Take up a new sport. Try free running, disc golf, or rock climbing. You won’t have to invest much in equipment, and the rules are easy, so you can focus on having fun and getting some exercise.
13. Learn a new language. Ancient Greek may be a “dead” language, but many English words are derived from it. Learning about the roots of words can improve your vocabulary and understanding of the English language.
14. Start saving for retirement now. This is one of those things that shouldn’t be procrastinated, no matter how many figures are in your salary.
15. Rearrange the furniture in your home. It’s a quick and easy way to change the scenery and beat boredom.
16. Start doing yoga. If you already do, try power yoga. You’ll get rid of the day’s frustrations, make your muscles happy, and feel more peaceful.
17. Clean out your closet and donate unwanted items to a local charity. You’ll have a lot more space
and others will be happy to benefit from your generosity. An added bonus is the excuse to shop for new clothes.
18. Improve your vocabulary. Dictionary.com has a word-of-the-day section (do you know what aeromancy means?) and vocabulary.com has resources and fun daily challenges.
19. Listen to classical music while you work. Try theclassicalstation.org for free online streaming (no matter where you live) and knowledgeable DJs.
20. Become a faster typist. Online typing games are fun and help you improve your skills. You might
even get work done faster, leave earlier, and beat the traffic.
21. Join or form a book club. The advantage of forming one is that you get to pick the first book.
22. Start an emergency fund. You never know when you might need a big chunk of change. Even if you never have an emergency, you’ve got another savings account.
23. Stop worrying about what other people think. That’s their business, and your business is being
24. Go to the nearest aquarium, aviary, or zoo and learn some animal facts. You’ll be surprised
at what you didn’t know about giraffe tongues.
25. Stay on top of your oral hygiene. Brush and floss regularly to avoid painful visits to the dentist,
and ask your dentist to recommend a toothpaste for your specific needs.
26. Send gifts to people you know. When you’re out shopping and see something that would make
a friend smile, buy it and give it anonymously.
27. Improve the quality of the air around you. Get an air filter to keep irritating and potentially harmful particles out of your nose, airways, and lungs.
28. Decide what you want in life and go after it. Don’t be too picky about your choices – you know
what you want, so get out there and chase it.
29. Pick up some self development audio courses and listen to them in the car. Drive time is
usually wasted, but it’s easy to make use of it.
30. Learn to play a new instrument. The piano is a great choice because it’s easy to learn, but
difficult to master. Piano skills also apply to many other instruments, and you can even take piano lessons online.
31. Become a more informed global citizen: learn the capital of every country, take geography quizzes to fill in blank maps, and learn to match each country to its flag.
32. Enjoy the little things. New office supplies, a different flavor of coffee creamer, or a haircut can do the trick.
33. Clean out your car. Driving to work every morning in a cluttered vehicle is sure to start each day with unnecessary stress.
34. Do one thing every day that scares you. Consistency may be comfortable, but it won’t teach you
35. Compliment other people. You’ll learn to see the best in them, and they’ll appreciate your kindness.
36. Go to a restaurant that serves a type of food you’ve never tried before. Jump in and order
something that scares you.
37. Lift weights at least three times a week. You don’t have to join a gym; just buy a dumbbell and switch arms. For bicep curls, four sets of ten is the ideal amount to gain muscle mass.
38. Prioritize your daily tasks. Tackle the most important and difficult ones first, then the ones you
don’t like. You’ll feel accomplished, and by the end of the day, you’ll be stress-free and working on easy, enjoyable tasks.
39. Become a mentor. You’re an expert in something that someone else out there wants to learn, so why not volunteer your time and knowledge?
40. Never “talk small” about yourself. Underestimating your abilities is an open invitation for
others to do the same.
41. Keep plants indoors at home and at work. They produce extra oxygen, get rid of carbon dioxide waste, and brighten up the room.
42. Get to know your parents. Even though you grew up with them, there are a lot of things about them you don’t know. They’re wise resources, so take advantage of them.
43. Have an opinion. And not just any opinion – be well informed about what’s important to you, don’t apologize for being knowledgeable, and don’t be afraid to tell others what you think.
44. Leave your social networking sites alone for a week. Every time you’re tempted to click, call a friend and schedule some real face time.
45. Neutralize negativity. It’s easy to think you’re being “realistic” when you’re actually a pessimist, so try to see things as being even better than they are. What do you have to lose?
46. Get tasty antioxidants by eating dark chocolate. It has less sugar than most candies and can actually improve your health.
47. Enjoy your body and take good care of it. It’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own.
48. Read a biography of a person you admire. You’ll learn more about why you admire them and get some tips on how to adopt a similar lifestyle.
49. When tackling difficult tasks, divide them into ...
Dr. Joy is the Founder and CEO of The Joy of Coaching and currently is the Senior Director in Human Resources for Children’s Hunger Alliance. She specializes in Career and Executive Coaching, Diversity, and Human Resources Management programs.