Do you remember 1988?
Now do you remember 1988?
Sure you do.
What you might remember is that Cocktail introduced us to a catchy wee number, but it wasn’t until September 24, 1989, following its re-release, that Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy, hit Number 1.
In the meantime, while it languished in the cellar of the pop charts, we can only presume Bobby wasn’t worrying, and was busy being happy…
Go on and watch it. You know you want to. I can hear you whistling it already anyhow…
Was he on something or onto something?
Don’t worry. Be happy.
Good advice for life?
There’s a bunch of solid evidence about optimism and health; glass half full and all that. More widely still, there’s some interesting stuff in the broader field of positive psychology. Some of it requires a grain of salt, too, so be judicious.
What we do know is that optimists are generally more resilient, in that they bounce back from difficulties and setbacks faster, confident that things will work out. Their general health is better and they usually live longer.
A positive outlook is good for you. So is success. Winners live longer. In fact, (bet you didn’t know this) Oscar winners live longer than those who don’t win them. True.
By contrast, more pessimistic types don’t get all of these benefits, but do tend to have a more realistic view of life, it being warts and all.
At either extreme of the continuum, things aren’t so good, with strong pessimists able to find a dark cloud around any silver lining, and who are just waiting for the sky to fall and the world to end. Horribly, of course. Catastrophically. Cataclysmically, even.
Extreme optimists, let’s call them delusionists, don’t need insurance, seatbelts, umbrellas, security and the like, because, you know, everythin’s dandy.
Even if it isn’t.
Realistic optimism is the compromise. Be positive, but recognize its limitations.
It’s a great thing to teach kids from a young age, and there’s some really good stuff in here. If you’re keen, there’s a series (eight of them) here.
A downbeat brain
We’ve talked before about what stress does to the brain, and the damaging effects that long-term stress has, for example, on the hippocampus, and our ability to remember, and therefore learn.
We’d note, also, that losing, be it a game or competition, has immediate and sometimes long-lasting effects on the brain also, such as a drop in serotonin. Men drop testosterone by the bucketload, and people generally tend to become risk averse and overly cautious.
A soccer brain
For example, groups of Italian and Brazilian soccer fans had their saliva tested for testosterone just before the World Cup Soccer final in 1994. It’s a big deal, the World Cup. Brazil won, on penalties.
Subsequently, Brazilian fans were more likely to be arrested for boisterous, even riotous, behaviour and Italian fans were so morose they had to be encouraged even to be re-tested. This might seem obvious so far.
But when they were re-tested, Brazilian fans showed an increase in testosterone of 28%, while Italian fans showed a decrease of 27%. Soccer is a serious business, no?
And in case you think this is only for the hot-blooded Italians and Brazilians, the same goes for chess, preserve of the seemingly cold-blooded Eastern Europeans.
And any competition, actually.
The impact of this lift or drop carries over, affecting our brains the next day or days, physically changing the brain’s sensitivity to testosterone, and affecting how we make decisions, what we think and so on.
With a drop, we can also become immunologically compromised, be more susceptible to pain, and generally not have such a fun time.
With a lift, more likely to win the next competition, make more money, risk more, and so on.
The brain, and thus our subsequent behaviour, is clearly changed by the environment, at a physical, cellular level, and even by seemingly small events.
So what happens if you Don’t Worry and Be Happy?
For an optimistic brain it’s pretty cool.
An upbeat brain
Younger folk perform better on tasks requiring creativity and cognitive flexibility, when they’re in a good mood. And by that I mean just a little bit happier than average, not we’ve just won the soccer world cup happy.
What about older folk?
Same. But cooler.
In fact, being in a good mood helped older adults on important tests: working memory and decision-making. This is really useful, because these are abilities that tend to decline with age.
A simple lift in mood can help compensate for some loss. It didn’t make people faster (a young brain will almost always outperform an old brain on tests of speed) but they still had significant gains.
To artificially create a better mood, researchers gave people a small bag of sweets. So being really, really happy will give you type II diabetes. Just kidding.
How do you do this?
You give the brain information that tells it you’re happy.
You smile. As genuinely as you can.
(Side note: We can’t fake an absolutely genuine smile. This relies on the orbis ocularis muscle which is responsible for closing the eyelid. In a real smile, this contracts, pulling your lids closer together, and folding the skin over at the corner of your eyes. You can’t do this voluntarily in the same way we do when we smile genuinely. Over time these folds become more fixed, giving us crow’s feet, or laughter lines.)
But even a fake smile sends enough information to the brain for it to say to itself, my face is smiling. I must be happy.
There is truth in “Smile and be happy”.
And if you think you’ll look like a goose just for smiling, there’s another neat little trick you might get away with. It uses the same facial feedback principle, but incognito.
If you stick a pencil in your mouth, end first, you’ll notice that your mouth forms an O. This tells the brain you’re sad, and it responds appropriately.
But put it in your mouth crossways, with the point sticking out one side and the end sticking out the other, and you’ll see that you’ve forced your mouth into a kind of smile.
This is enough feedback for the brain to believe that you feel happy because your face is doing the smiling thing.
So here’s the take home bit…
You’ll feel better, and perform better, even if you’re older.
Bobby was right after all.
Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat
Orbis Ocularis, Facial Feedback
What do you think?
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