Tricks of the Happiness Trade
By Lauren Gravitz   |  
From the March 2004 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine

Field of red tulips
We’ve all got little homegrown tricks for cheering ourselves up. O finds out why they actually work.

I’ve succumbed to full-blown depression just once, and the only good that came of it was learning that I never wanted to experience anything like it again. So I started collecting little mood-boosting tricks—not cure-alls for clinical depression but small, helpful ways to pull myself back from the edge. After polling friends and colleagues, I discovered that many of them had stumbled upon the same techniques, and they gave me a few new ones, too. Science is beginning to explain why they actually work, which means that these days I don’t feel completely ridiculous when I’m in my car and someone catches me belting out a Beatles song.

Trick #1: “I rent a bunch of stand-up comedy DVDs.”

The Science: A smile, even a forced one, can improve your mood. In a widely confirmed study, psychologist Fritz Strack, PhD, and his colleagues at the University of Mannheim in Germany had participants view a cartoon while gripping a pen either between their teeth (to simulate a smile) or between puckered lips. The first group found the cartoons funnier, supporting the theory of “facial feedback”—the idea that facial expressions can stimulate emotion. A Fairleigh Dickinson University study showed that laughing brightens mood even more than smiling. (Don’t like stand-up? Here are 5 movies that will lift your spirits)

Trick #2: “I go for a run.”

The Science: Research has consistently shown that exercise can significantly impact depression and improve overall mood. A 1999 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed that exercise could be as effective as medication. Scientists aren’t exactly sure why it works so well: because it relieves stress, acts as a distraction, stimulates production of neurotransmitters (including endorphins—which have painkilling properties and can bring feelings of euphoria—as well as serotonin and dopamine), or all of the above.

Trick #3: “I try to commit acts of kindness.”

The Science: Volunteering at a hospital or shelter, tutoring a budding reader, and even donating clothes to Goodwill facilitate a “helper’s high.” The benefits of altruism are most apparent when there’s person-to-person contact. Allan Luks, author of The Healing Power of Doing Good, has found that simply recalling a charitable act brings back the same, albeit less intense, good mood.

Trick #4: “I listen to Madonna, sing loudly, and dance around the living room.”

The Science: A number of studies suggest that listening to music stimulates the brain to release endorphins. Recent research at the University of Manchester in England showed that listening to loud music activates a part of the inner ear called the saccule, which is connected to an area of the brain responsible for drives like hunger, sex, and pleasure seeking.

Trick #5: “I buy bright red tulips.”

The Science: A 2001 Rutgers University study on the mood-lifting effect of flowers showed that 72 percent of seniors who received one or two bouquets over a six-month period were happier than they had been. In a separate study, flowers evoked a stronger response than other gifts.

Here are five more everyday activities that can make your mood go from bad to good!

Trick #6: “I hang out with friends.”

The Science:: Numerous studies have documented the benefits of social support, while others have shown that isolation can lead to depression. According to a study at the University of Michigan, even more important than social support is a sense of belonging: Connecting with and confiding in close friends can allay despair.

Trick #7: “I snuggle the dog.”

The Science: Two studies published in 1999 showed that both AIDS patients and senior citizens benefit from having pets; those with animals were less likely to suffer from depression than those without. An earlier study showed that pet owners were also at decreased risk of heart disease.

Trick #8: “I make like a cat—I find a patch of sunlight streaming through the window, curl up, and fall asleep in the warmth.”

The Science: A common cause of depression is seasonal affective disorder (SAD), in which lack of sunlight increases the production of melatonin, a hormone that affects sleep patterns and mood. Some therapists believe that even people not affected by SAD can reap the rewards of sunshine—one study of depressed pregnant women showed that a daily dose of bright light for three weeks had a beneficial effect.

Trick #9: “I change the landscape.”

The Science: Perhaps it’s the calming properties of the ocean or a starry sky, or the way a new setting can take you out of yourself and provide a sense of perspective. Although scientific research is scarce, a good number of people mentioned that a change of scenery, especially one that gets you back to nature, is an instant head clearer.

How to teach your brain to be happy (yes, it’s possible!)

Printed from on Thursday, February 9, 2012
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