Pretending to be happy: smart guys say it works

This column first appeared in the April, 2009 edition. In light of the rough “Winter of the Water” and all of its depressing side-effects Flintoids have survived, it seems appropriate to remind ourselves of these ideas again.

By Jan Worth-Nelson

Photo on 4-4-16 at 10.03 PM #2

Worth-Nelson making happy

Sheepishly, I admit it: two of my favorite words are “lugubrious” and “lachrymose.”

They’re fun to say. I dare you to say them out loud yourself, right now, in Steady Eddy’s or the Lunch Studio or Good Beans or wherever you are: LU-GU-BRIOUS — excessively mournful, and LACH-RY-MOSE — dolorous, showing sorrow, according to Wordnet. They sound like what they mean. Say “lugubrious” and the mouth pouts outward, the sides of the face falling. Say “lachrymose” and the throat slightly tightens, as if preparing for a good cry.

But if words are destiny, which as a writer I superstitiously believe, I think I should pull these morose syllables out of service from my personal lexicon, at least for now.

Times are tough, and we need relief. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of being down.

So, I’ll establish myself as the East Village Idiot, once and for all, by declaring that this is a time to be upbeat. We need to smile at ourselves in the mirror in the morning and say hello. We need to smile at each other and say with gentle confidence, counter-intuitively, that things will be all right.

This is not, despite the sound of it, total lunacy. According to a growing body of research, finding a way to “act happy” might actually change our brain chemistry, our immune systems, and in time, improve the way we respond to the stresses of life. It’s a potent concept – that by choosing what we attend to and what we nurture, we can sometimes change what happens.

According to studies by Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, and others by Paul Ekman at the University of California-San Francisco, for example, the action is in the amygdala, an area of the brain known to be the hub of “fear memory.”

In a 2003 BBC interview, Ekman said his research showed that Buddhists who regularly meditated, were “less likely to be shocked, flustered, surprised or as angry as other people.” In fact, he asserted, the experienced Buddhists in his study had achieved, via meditation and selective attention, what the rest of us so often seem to be short on: happiness.

Mystics and meditators have known this for centuries. As the 13th Century Perisan poet Rumi advised, “Water the fruit trees, and don’t water the thorns.”

One of my heroes is psychology superstar Martin Seligman, who coined the phrase “learned happiness.” A self-described pessimist, Seligman first achieved notice with his gloomy but path-finding concept of “learned helplessness,” in which his experiments suggested that people whose attempts to escape punishment were continually thwarted eventually gave up trying, even after obstacles were lifted.

Sound like your depressed neighbor, or even you, at 4 a.m.?

Now, trying to turn the focus of how we think about mental health from pathology to wellbeing, Seligman is fruitfully noting that people can learn to change – and become happier. This turns out to be something, however, that a whole community must consider; as a solely individual matter, it can be impossible to sustain.

As he told Time Magazine in 2005, “We needed to ask, what are the enabling conditions that make human beings flourish?”

Rumi’s ideas about getting to happiness called for, among other things, the brilliantly simple notion of moving the body. Rumi was a dervish. He breathed, twirled and spoke his poems while whirling. (Oh, how I would love to have been at those open mic nights) He considered that moving the body was an essential part of the meditation.

He prescribed other kinds of movement as well. In a recent NPR interview, Persian-American Rumi scholar Fatemeh Keshavarz, paraphrased it this way: ”If you don’t plow the earth, it’s going to get so hard nothing grows in it. You just plow the earth of yourself. You just get moving. And even don’t ask exactly what’s going to happen. You allow yourself to move around, and then you will see the benefit.”

If we choose to twirl away from despair, in the spirit of Rumi, that means finding a path to practical love. A neighborhood can do what one person can’t.

So when I cheered Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials with my neighbors on a recent exuberant musical night at the UM – Flint theater, or when I see everybody gardening in these past glorious days — all of us out there raking, planting, pruning, or when we’re all getting re-acquainted with each other on our daily walks — pausing at corners to gossip and take in whatever sun the day affords, I think we’re moving, tentatively but undeniably, sweetly and gently, toward hope — resilient and resolute even in the face of a scary and depressing year.

Rumi said, “’Get yourself a new language and then you will be able to see a new world.”

So, enough already of “lachrymose.” A pox on “lugubrious.” Let’s keep moving. It’s spring, and we have a neighborhood to love.

Jan Worth-Nelson is editor of East Village Magazine and can be reached at









ing year.

Author: East Village Magazine

A Non-profit, Community News Magazine Since 1976

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