Did you mope your way into work this morning with your head down and your shoulders slumped? Obviously you did. It’s Wednesday and, if you’re in New York, it’s a rainy, disgusting day. But there is some new evidence that you can walk yourself right out of a crappy mood: Walk like a happy person and you’ll actually feel happier, says a study published online in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry.
In the study, people walked on a treadmill for 15 minutes. Around them were cameras with sensors that picked up their movements, and in front of them was a screen displaying a gauge that moved to the left if they walked like they were depressed, and to the right if they walked like they were happy. (Research has shown that depressed people tend to walk with poorer posture; they also tend to sway their upper body a bit from side to side as they move, but their arms don’t swing at their sides too much. Non-depressed people, on the other hand, walk upright; their upper body stays steady, and their arms swing at their sides as they go along.) But, because researchers are sneaky, the people in the study didn’t know what the gauge was measuring. They were simply told to try to get the needle to move to the left, or to the right.
Before the treadmill task, they were shown a list of words, some positive (pretty) and some negative (afraid, anxious). After they hopped off the treadmill, they were asked to write down as many of those words as they could remember. The people who’d been prompted to walk like a depressed person ended up recalling more negative words and (slightly) fewer positive words than the people who’d merrily bounced along on their treadmills. This, the authors conclude, means that the people who’d walked as if they were sad did, in fact, end up feeling sadder. (The sad-walkers also recalled more words overall than the happy-walkers, a reminder that, as you’ll recall, grouches are more likely to be sticklers for detail.)
Add this one to the growing list of studies on embodiment, the idea that you can change your mood simply by changing your posture. Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy found that if you stand like a powerful person would, with your chest puffed out and your hands on your hips, you’ll feel more powerful; she calls this “power posing” and has hinted at preliminary research that suggests this even works in your sleep. Likewise, a famous study in the 1980s showed that if you hold a pen between your lips, it activates the muscles you use to smile, which seems to actually put you in a better mood, as if you were smiling spontaneously. My high school swim coach used to tell us to fake it till you feel it; science as of late seems to be suggesting that she had a point.