Welcome to our limited series on The Science of Happiness. Introduction: here | Week One: here | Week Two: here | Week Three: here | Week Four: here | Week Five: here | Week Six: here | Week Seven: here | Week Eight: here
This week’s lesson focuses on lesser studied contributors to human happiness, namely awe, laughter, and play. These simple, basic activities can transform a life from mere living to a grand adventure – just ask any three year old!
Like, Totally Awesome
(Yeah, you knew that joke was coming, didn’t you?) The study of awe is fairly new. When scientists studied emotions in the past, they tended to stick with the negative ones. But when they turned their attention to awe, which is defined as the feeling we get when in the presence of something greater than ourselves, there was a lot to see.
We can get a feeling of awe in many different ways, from climbing to high, expansive vantage points to viewing people performing extraordinary, inspiring acts. Even just encountering viewpoints that challenge or expand our worldview can inspire feelings of awe.
So what do we feel when we feel awe? Emotionally, we feel small, insignificant. We feel we’re in the presence of something greater than ourselves, and that connects us to the world around us in a profound way. A sense of awe wipes away our obsession with day to day concerns, relaxing and calming us. We don’t want it to end.
Physiologically, awe reduces the fight or flight instinct, helps us take in more information about the world around us, and generally opens us up to seeing the world in a different way. Research has found that a sustained feeling of awe can lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are proteins that signal the immune system to work harder. According to Yasmin Anwar of UC Berkeley, “sustained high levels of cytokines are associated with poorer health and such disorders as type-2 diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and even Alzheimer’s disease and clinical depression.”
Happiness Practice #10: Awe Walk: Why just walk, when you can turn your stroll into a path of delight?
Don’t Make Me Laugh (No, Wait! Please Do!)
When did you last have a good belly laugh? You know, the kind that actually makes you dizzy? Luckily, Kat and I have them all the time. We credit a huge part in the success of our eighteen year relationship to the fact that we just crack each other the heck up.
The sad truth is, research has found that some adults can go weeks without laughing! Compare this to little kids, who sometimes laugh hundreds of times a day, and you can see why sitcoms and comedians are so popular.
So what makes something funny? While everybody’s taste in humor differs, there does appear to be one key component in what makes something funny. According to German researcher Willibald Ruch, the common thread in most jokes is that they all involve dealing with surprise and resolving the ensuing cognitive dissonance. “What elicits laughter isn’t the content of the joke but the way our brain works through the conflict the joke elicits,” writes Weems.
Researchers studying animals have found laughter-like behavior in animals like chimpanzees and bonobos to dogs and even rats. In an evolutionary sense, laughter in humans and animals not only signals joy, it can enhance interpersonal bonding and even improve status within the group. Martin Meyer, a researcher at the University of Zurich, believes primates use laughter (or a similar sound) when they’re in a subordinate position, trying to appease a potential assailant. Just like junior high recess, it seems that the funny kid can often avoid a beating just by being…well, funny.
Gimme Da Ball, Gimme Da Ball, Gimme Da Ball – YEAH!
So let’s talk about play. A simple look at the sea of devices overwhelming our world can tell you that good, old-fashioned play is disappearing from view. Yeah, it’s easy to dismiss play as unimportant–I mean, we are Serious People with Serious Lives doing Serious Things. Playing is for kids.
When was the last time you just played? And by play, I mean something that is not task-oriented, not mandated, and not purpose driven? Something fun. Something that lets us lose track of time and just relax for a while?
Of course, lots of research has been done about the benefits of play for children. Playing teaches boundaries between what’s safe and what’s harmful. It teaches both physical and intellectual skills. It enhances imagination and creativity.
And whether you’re talking about children or adults, playing just feels good. Let’s bring back play, shall we? (she asks, readjusting her collection of Funko Pop dolls on the desk).
Careful the Tale You Tell
In the late 1980s, Stephen Sondheim produced a play called “Into the Woods,” which was a retelling of several fairy tales in the most Sondheimian fashion. Towards the end of the play, as the Baker is regaling his infant son with the story of their adventures, the Witch sings the following lines:
Wishes are children
Careful the path they take
Wishes come true
Careful the spell you cast
Not just on children
Sometimes the spell may last
Past what you can see
And turn against you
That is the spell
Children will listen
Humans are natural storytellers. Stories bring humans together, sharing information and values from person to person, and generation to generation.
But the one story most people don’t consider is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, the “meta-narrative” that encompasses your life’s journey as a whole. It’s this narrative that helps us make sense of ourselves and our identities.
It’s no secret in the metaphysical world that self-talk is important. Narratives form the symbolic structures that we use to make sense of our lives, so it’s really important that we become mindful of these personal narratives.
It can be healthy and healing to tell the narrative of our struggles, our tragedies, our successes and defeats. The inability to express these things, especially when it comes to huge life events, can cause frustration, stress, and even sickness.
On the other hand, narrative can be used as a tool. Vision boards, letters from your future self, even writing down plans and dreams can actually help us achieve these things and make us feel better in the meantime.
Thanks for joining us this week. Coming up next week, we review for the final!
If you’d like to audit The Science of Happiness for free, sign up at the Greater Good Science Center here. You can also listen to the excellent podcast of the same name from Public Radio International.