You’re walking in the woods. You see a bear. You get scared. You run.
That’s the way we usually think of emotions: the emotion precedes our physical response. We’re scared so we run away. We’re sad, so we cry. We feel happy; therefore we laugh.
About 150 years ago, however, the American philosopher and psychologist William James (brother of the novelist Henry James) proposed a different sequence:
You’re walking in the woods. You see a bear. You run. You get scared.
In other words, James asked, what if physiology (running) precedes the emotion (fear)?
What if emotion comes from motion? And if that’s true, might we be able to reverse engineer some of our emotions–affect our state–by starting with our physiology?
Recent research has offered tantalizing findings about the ways in which emotion comes from the body.
Amy Cuddy, assistant professor at the Harvard Business school, has studied how “power posing” (i.e., assuming a confident, open, expansive posture) actually produced higher levels of testosterone and lower levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) before a high-stress situation. By starting with their physiology, the subjects produced confidence and reduced stress. As Cuddy puts it, “Your body language is changing your mind, which changes your behavior, which changes your outcomes.”
A different study showed a similar effect with a group of subjects who were asked to rate how funny a group of cartoons were. One group was asked to hold a pencil in their mouths in a way that forced their faces to frown. The other group held the pencil between their teeth, forcing a smile. Both groups looked at the same cartoons. The latter (the smiling) group found the same cartoons funnier than their frowning peers. In other words, their physiology affected their emotion.
This is not to say that emotions like grief, sadness or joy aren’t real, of course, or to suggest that the way we feel can always be determined by a simple adjustment in our stance or the muscles in our face.
But consider the ways in which may have some control over your own emotions by virtue of the control you have over your body. Think, for example, about how you typically walk into a room to face your team when you’re stressed or overwhelmed. How do they experience your presence? And what would happen if you stopped for a minute, stood taller, opened your chest, put a smile on your face, took a deep, full breath … and then stepped into the room?