We’re not supposed to feel happy all the time, and anyone who tells you that they are is a big, fat liar. Everyone gets the blues. Everyone gets anxious. And everyone gets angry. Unhappiness is normal, and, at least for a little while, it’s adaptive since our brains react to threatening truths in our environment. For instance, having bad feelings in the right situations, like crying at the end of a relationship, teaches us about uneasy events and prepares us to cope with similar ones in the future. Things become problematic, however, when these negative emotions try to hang around long after the party has died. Kicking them out requires finesse, creativity, and sometimes a whole lot of weirdness. Here are some unconventional, yet scientifically backed, methods for tricking your brain back to happiness.
1. Bite a pencil. We’re not kidding.
Using both hands, hold it horizontally, and bring it up to your mouth. Chomp down with your teeth, and let the hands go. If you’re doing it right, you’re activating the same facial muscles you use when smiling. Research has shown smiling induces “happiness.” To investigate the influence of facial expression on affect, Fritz Strack and colleagues told participants to hold a pen horizontally either between their teeth or between their upper lip and nose (the latter hold mimics a frown). Participants then evaluated comics for objective funniness and reported how amused the comics made them feel. While all subjects said they were equally funny, the same comics induced more amusement in the group using smile muscles by biting down on the pen. In other words, if you can’t change a situation, you can make it better — just gnaw on a pencil.
2. Have a big steak dinner — with your dog.
We’re not saying have fancy dinners with dogs instead of people. What we’re saying is, if your date stood you up, and your plan was to pick up a frozen pizza and a pint of ice cream for sitting alone on the couch and watching Netflix, you should re-evaluate. When we’re socially rejected, experimental evidence shows that pets make us feel good, and correlated evidence links pet ownership with greater indexes of well-being, including higher self-esteem, more exercise, less fearful attachments, and greater conscientiousness. Don’t worry. You won’t become a crazy pet person. Research also shows that when it comes to social support, pets don’t compete with, but instead complement, human relationships. After dinner, call up a friend and go for a long walk. Your brain won’t know the difference.
3. Follow up your dog date with a decadent bar of dark chocolate.
We’ve known for awhile that chocolate releases endorphins in our brains, but that just reflects that it makes us happy. How it makes us happy is still a mystery. Look, it’s chocolate, and it’s delicious. Does it really matter?
4. Be a mindful raisin eater.
In other words, don’t just eat — savor. In one study, a group of college students was assigned to eat raisins like regular people do, and another group was asked to do so mindfully, paying attention to all the sensations the raisins aroused. Mindful raisin eaters later reported higher expected affinity for other foods, and non-food items like pets and hobbies. Results were particularly strong for previously non-liked foods. The lesson? If you’re feeling too judgmental, eat a raisin like a monk and watch everything get better.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2014 issue of Brain World Magazine.