The Secret to Happiness is Actually NOT Positive’s Even Easier


This week I’ve thoroughly enjoyed re-reading a book called ‘Rip It Up’ by Richard Wiseman. The book is based on a principle called ‘Act As If’. He found this principle though the work of the father of American psychology, William James.

James was a creative thinker. He asked the simple questions that most people didn’t even consider. Like, why do we smile when we are happy? Why does our heart race speaking to a large group but not when speaking to an individual? What is emotion?

Things got really interesting when he turned his attention to emotion and behaviour. He reflected on what is emotion and how it relates to behaviour. He then came up with an incredibly radical idea. An idea so ahead of its time, no one believed it. In fact, I’m sure you’ll struggle to make sense of it at first too.

James proposed that our behaviour created our emotions. For example, something funny happens, we smile and then we feel happy.

James gave the example of seeing a bear.

Usually, we think:

You see a bear  ----> You feel fear -----> You run for your life!

James proposed:

You see a bear ----> You start running ----> You feel fear

This is very counter-intuitive. Most people imagine things to be the other way round.

How could our emotions come after our behaviour? 

But, lots of research following William James’ death found his theory to be true in many domains.

You can try it out for yourself right now.

Rate how happy you feel right now on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being totally unhappy and 10 being feeling totally happy.

Now practice smiling for 30 seconds roughly. But you need to do this properly as they recommend in the experiments. 

How to Smile (I found it particularly enjoyable by going through these steps)

  1. Look in a mirror. 

  2. Open your mouth slightly. 

  3. Lift the corners of your mouth as much as possible to reach towards your ears, and so the corners of your eyes may wrinkle up a bit.

  4. Now gently raise your eyebrows.

  5. Hold this smile for about half a minute.

Now rate your happiness again.

You may have found your happiness going up. I did.

How does this work? Well, your face and body are sending signals to your brain. When you smile, your brain thinks ‘Oh, you’re smiling. You therefore must be happy. So let me make you feel happy.’

So if you want to feel happy, you just need to act like a happy person. 

What do you do when you feel happy? You smile, you laugh, you may dance, you walk a little faster with a bounce in your step, you have more of an open body posture, your shoulders are back, you are looking more upwards than downwards, you spend more time speaking with friends.

When William James discovered this, he was very excited. He considered the greatest way to uplift yourself. As with many great artists or scientists, they sometimes are not fully appreciated for their insights. And this was the case for this insight. 

Your Facial Expression Impacts Your Body Too

By Yosarian - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

By Yosarian - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

World renowned emotion researcher Paul Ekman discovered something fascinating about facial expressions and physiology. He got one group to think of something scary that had happened to them in the past. Unsurprisingly, they got a high heart rate and their skin temperature lowered. And imagining a past happy experience, their heart rate lowered and their skin temperature increased.

But the same pattern emerged when people just adopted the facial expression. When they made the face of fear, their heart rate rose and skin temp dropped. When their facial expression was happy, their heart rate lowered again.

This was tested further by asking people to contort their faces in a brain scanner. As expected by now, the facial expression of fear, for example, activated the fear centre of the brain.

So your facial expression doesn’t only affect your happiness or other emotions, it impacts your physical bodily reactions and your brain too!

Walk a Happy Walk, Dance a Happy Dance

In another study by Psychologist Sara Snodgrass, she asked groups of people to walk for 3 minutes in two different ways.

Half the group had to take long strides, swing their arms and holding their head up high (hello Monty Python’s ministry of silly walks!). The other group had to take short strides, shuffle along and look down at their feet. 

Those with the big strides reported feeling much happier.

Research on dance found people feel happier when they move in a fluid way and unhappier when they make sharp, straight movements. This was also found in hand shaking! If people shook hands with the researcher in a smooth and flowing way, felt happier, felt emotionally closer to the researcher and rated the researcher as more likeable and open. Amazing!

Talk Yourself Happy

Another lovely piece of research was done by psychologist Emmett Velten. He gave them a stack of cards to read out aloud that get gradually more positive. Try reading these statements out aloud. Take your time to savour the meaning of each sentence. No need to rush. And rate how you feel at the beginning and end of this exercise.

Ok, here we go. Read them aloud and in a convincing way. It’ll feel strange at first, but stick with it:

I feel surprising good about myself today

I think I can make a success of things.

I’m glad most people are very friendly towards me.

I know if I set my mind to something, it will often turn out well.

I feel very enthusiastic right now.

It’s as if I’m full of energy at the moment and enjoying what I’m doing.

I feel especially efficient today.

I’m really optimistic at the moment and expect to get along very well with most people I meet.

I’m feeling really good about myself and the world today.

Given the mood I’m in, I feel particularly inventive and resourceful.

I’m pretty sure most of my friends will stick with me in the future.

I feel like my life is very much under my control.

I’m in a great mood and want somebody to play some wonderful music.

I’m enjoying this, and really do feel good about myself.

This feels like one of those days when I’m raring to go!

Did you enjoy reading those sentences? They are now often used in research to help raise people’s moods for experiments. Note - this isn’t just positive thinking - this is positive speaking out aloud.


If you want to feel happier, it’s much quicker and more effective to behave as if you’re having a good time rather than try and think yourself happy. Positive action seems to trump positive thinking.

Smile, walk with a spring in your step, dance, sing, play, laugh, talk happily - just do whatever makes you feel good.

William James was right!

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