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the ‘as if’ principle: or, how to cultivate happiness

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William James – a surprisingly fun guy

The following post is based entirely on Richard Wiseman’s book Rip it up, which should be better known, but perhaps it is, I don’t know.

William James, Henry’s more interesting big brother, was one of the world’s first professional or academic psychologists, though I’d say more academic than professional. His most significant contribution to psychology was the utterance of a single simple sentence: ‘If you want a quality, act as if you already have it.’ It sounds anodyne and not particularly original – I’m sure a lot of us have imagined from childhood that acting as if you’re a knowledgeable, intelligent person might make people treat you like one, even if it’s all BS. I know I have.

The fact is, though, that a ton of research has shown that James really was onto something. I’m going to present an annotated list of the research, but first, some background to James’s thinking. He followed a well-worn track for original thinkers (if that’s not a contradiction, which it is) of deciding that the common-sense view of ‘x’ isn’t true, or at least needs considerable tweaking (think Newton on motion, Einstein on space and time, etc). The common-sense view on emotions is that when we feel anxious, we sweat; when we feel happy, we smile; and when we feel sad, we weep. This seems pretty well unarguable. Here’s what James himself had to say:

Why do we smile, when pleased, and not scowl? Why are we unable to talk to a crowd as we talk to a single friend? Why does a particular maiden turn our wits so upside-down? The common man can only say, ‘Of course we smile, of course our heart palpates at the sight of the crowd, of course we love the maiden, that beautiful soul clad in that perfect form, so palpably and flagrantly made for all eternity to be loved!’

But James had learned to be wary of the obvious, and his thoughts about emotion and behaviour were piqued by one of Darwin’s most important books, The expression of the emotion in man and animals, in which he noted how easily and reliably we can identify the emotions of others from their facial expressions. James took this in another direction. Maybe if we took more notice of our own facial expressions we would gain more insight into how we were feeling. Then he took it a step further: Maybe if we changed our expressions we could change our emotional state.

James got a little carried away with his own insight, as you do. He imagined that we really had got the causal connection round the wrong way. As he put it:

You do not run from the bear because you are afraid of it, but rather become afraid of it because you run from it.

We now know, though, that it isn’t that the causal connection is reversed, it’s that it runs both ways. Yes, we smile because we’re happy, but it’s also true that smiling makes us happier. And that’s just the start. James was no experimental psychologist – more of an armchair ideas man, so it took a while for this idea to catch on and be tested, but in recent decades we’ve really caught up. So here’s the evidence – and I’ll number and describe the research pieces (they’re not all empirical research, as you’ll see, and they’re in no particular order) and provide academic details, if any, at the end.

1. Volunteers were first asked to smile or frown, then report on their feelings. Then the experimenter, James Laird, decided a more reliable method was needed. He told the subjects he’d be examining electrical activity, and placed electrodes at various facial muscles. He explained that their emotional state might affect the experiment, so asked them to report on their feelings. In fact the electrodes were fake. Then they were asked to manipulate their faces into what we would see as happy or angry expressions, though emotional terms were never used. Instead they were asked to draw their eyebrows up or down, to purse or spread their lips, to clench their teeth, etc. Those whose faces were ‘forced’ into smiles reported feeling significantly happier than those who frowned – who felt more angry. When asked why, they had no ready answer – few attributed it to the facial manipulations.

2. Constantin Stanislavsky was the ‘inventor’ of method acting. He encouraged actors to experience real emotion through behaviour – the key idea being ‘if I was really experiencing this emotion, how would I behave?’ Many famous actors have used the ‘magic if’ principle to great effect.

3. Other psychologists, inspired by Laird’s research, used other tricks to change people’s facial expressions, such as getting people to use ‘ee’ words (as in ‘say cheese’) or ‘eu’ words (as in ‘ooh yuk’), which produced similar results to (1). A German team told half of their subjects to hold a pencil horizontally between their teeth, forcing a smile, while the other half held the pencil with lips only, forcing a frown. All results supported the power of the ‘as if’ principle.

4. Volunteers were attached to a machine that monitored heart rate and skin temperature. They were asked first to think of an event that made them feel angry, and to try to relive that event as intensely as possible. Then they were asked simply to manipulate their faces into a recognisably angry expression. These two separate tasks were repeated for other emotions – surprise, fear, disgust, happiness and sadness. Not surprisingly, heart rates and skin temperatures changed considerably when the first of the tasks were carried out, in line with the emotions being experienced. More surprisingly, the same effects were measured when the subjects simply manipulated their faces. This experiment, first carried out with western subjects, was repeated with subjects from a remote Indonesian island. The results supported the idea that the ‘as if’ principle is universal among humans.

5. Participants were placed in a brain scanner and asked to contort their faces into a fearful expression. This time there was no need to ask subjects for feedback. Instead, scientists measured directly the activity in the amygdala, known to be highly associated with fear responses.The experiment provided strong evidence that the ‘as if’ principle has a definite effect on the brain.

6. A national survey was conducted in which people rated their cheerfulness levels, from 1 (not at all cheerful) to 7 (very cheerful). 45% of the population rated themselves from 5 to 7. Then a study was conducted involving some 26,000 internet respondents. Participants were randomly assigned to various groups and asked to engage in activities designed to make them happier (e.g. encouraged to feel grateful, to relive happy memories, etc). One group was simply asked to smile for a brief period every day. When participants were asked to rate their happiness after the exercises, those who simply smiled had the most positive results. (no research data available)

7. In a study designed to determine whether walking style influenced emotional state, subjects were asked to take a 3-minute walk in 2 ways. One half were asked to take long strides, swing their arms and hold their heads high. The other half were asked to shuffle and look at their feet. The first half afterwards rated themselves significantly happier than the second half.

8. Sabine Koch has conducted research which reveals that people feel happier when they move in a fluid way, and avoid sharp, straight movements. She focused particularly on hand-shaking. She trained some experimenters to shake hands in a smooth flowing way, and others to shake hands more jerkily. Koch then asked people who’d been subjected to these different handshakes how they felt. Those subjected to the flowing handshake felt considerably happier, and closer to and more trusting of the experimenter (I like this one).

9. Clinical psychologist Emmett Velten wanted to create a happy atmosphere in the lab. He experimented by dividing volunteers into 2 groups, handing each a stack of 60 cards. For group 1, the first card, which the subject was asked to read aloud, said ‘today is neither better nor worse than any other day’. The next card read ’I do feel pretty good today though’. The subject slowly read through the whole stack, which contained increasingly positive messages. Group 2’s cards simply contained statements of fact, such as ‘The Orient Express travels between Paris and Istanbul’. After the read-through, the subjects in group 1 reported feeling in a ‘wonderful’ mood, while group 2 subjects reported no change. This striking effect led to a number of similar experiments.

10. One group of participants were asked to read aloud a short paragraph describing how their friend had thrown them a surprise birthday party. Another group read a story about how a family member had been diagnosed with an illness. The participants’ moods were genuinely affected, as if these stories were true.

11. On reading about the medical benefits of laughter, Dr Madan Kataria went to a local park with some friends. They told each other jokes and laughed loudly. It became a regular thing and soon grew into the first laughter club. When the jokes started becoming offensive, he tried a new tack, employing the as if principle. He found that laughing out loud as if you’ve heard a great joke had much the same effect (no research data)


12. Research based on laughter clubs has been carried out in the USA. Subjects were split into 3 groups. Group 1 spent a minute smiling, group 2 spent a minute laughing aloud, group 3 spent the minute engaged in an activity requiring a similar physical effort to laughing, but with no amusement factor (howling like a wolf). Group 2, the laughing group, felt happiest afterwards, followed by the smiling group. The howling group reported no effect.

13. Another popular ‘fun’ activity is dancing. Researchers split 300 students into 4 groups. Group 1 participated in an hour-long aerobic exercise class, group 2 in a body conditioning session, group 3 in hip-hop dancing, and group 4 went ice skating. Due to feel-good endorphin release, all groups felt happier afterwards, but the hip-hop group were happiest (not precisely an illustration of the ‘as if’ principle, but fuck that, let’s dance). Other research has shown that non-competitive, easily-learned dance moves have the most positive effect on mood.

14. Not surprisingly, another activity which has an overwhelmingly positive effect on mood is singing. In one experiment, choristers were asked to sing sections of Mozart’s Requiem, against controls who only listened to recordings of the piece. The singers reported far higher levels of happiness.

Okay, that’s enough. I’ve taken these research pieces entirely from the first chapter of Wiseman’s book, which focuses on happiness. Other chapters deal with romance and relationships, mental health, and the art of persuasion. Among many insights, the importance of role-playing is emphasised throughout. That’s to say. it’s not just a matter of thinking yourself in others’ shoes, but wearing those shoes that effects change. The notorious Stanford prison experiment, and the famous blue eyes, brown eyes experiment are two classic, albeit largely depressing, accounts of the power of role-play, but clearly it can be used to more positive effect. One of the most inspiring aspects of Wiseman’s book, for me, is to show that change might be easier than we think (and again that’s a two edged sword, depending on the nature of the change). The call to action is very useful, especially if, like me, you tend to be more wedded to thinking than to doing.

1.Laird, James D. (1974). “Self-attribution of emotion: The effects of expressive behavior on the quality of emotional experience”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 29(4): 475–486. doi:10.1037/h0036125.

2. Merlin, Bella. 2007. The Complete Stanislavsky Toolkit. London: Nick Hern. ISBN 978-1-85459-793-9.

3. Strack, F et al. (1988) ‘Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: A nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 768-77

4. Levenson, R W et al (1990) ‘Voluntary facial action generates emotion-specific autonomic nervous system activity’, Psychophysiology, 27(4), 363-84

5. Lee, T W et al (2006) ‘Imitating expressions: emotion-specific neural substrates in facial mimicry’, Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience, 1, 122-35

7. Snodgrass, S E et al (1986) ‘The effects of walking behaviour on mood’. Paper presented at the American Psychological Association convention.

8. Koch, S C (2011) ‘Basic body rhythms and embodied inter corporality: from individual to interpersonal movement feedback’, in W Tsacher, & C Bergomi (eds), ‘The implications of embodiment: cognition and communication’ (pp151-71), Exeter: Imprint Academic

9. Velten, E (1968) ‘A laboratory task for induction of mood states’, Behaviour research and therapy, 6, 473-82

10. Hatfield, E et al (1995)’The impact of vocal feedback on emotional experience and expression’. Journal of social behaviour and personality, 10, 293-313

12. Neuhoff, C & Schaefer, C (2002) ‘Effects of laughing, smiling and howling on mood’, Psychological Reports, 91, 1079-80

13. Kim, S & Kim, J (2007) ‘Mood after various brief exercise and sport modes: aerobics, hip-hop dancing, ice skating ad body conditioning’. Perceptual and motor skills, 104, 1265-70

14. Clift, S et al (2010) ‘Choral singing and psychological well-being’, Journal of applied arts and health, 1, 19-34; Kreuz, G et al ‘Does singing provide health benefits?’ Proceedings of the 5th triennial ESCOM conference, 216-19


Written by stewart henderson

July 3, 2015 at 3:09 am

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