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Happiness is within reach

By Albert Nerenberg
December 13, 2008

No the answer is not your nose.

But it might be nearly as obvious.

Neuroscience is now beginning to prove it's actually the obvious things that make us happy and improve our health.

Some of these things are echoed in age-old adages: Look on the bright side, laughter is the best medicine, and smile and the world smiles with you. Some are so obvious that we often overlook them - the importance of smiling, laughing, singing and dancing, as well as friends, family, fun, exercise, sunshine, children, community and celebration. These are the things that elevate our moods, strengthen our immune systems, lengthen our lives and maybe even help bring about a more peaceful world.

Strangely, most of these things are free. And the truly exciting part is that the potential of the obvious positives may be quite untapped scientifically and socially - meaning we could get much better at culturing joy and happiness. That is essentially the conclusion of this series on Positivity.

But before I continue, I should confess I'm not feeling that positive at the moment. I'm finishing this piece in a hotel room in sweltering Mumbai, India. I arrived last week, the day after the terror attacks ended, due to a previously scheduled shoot. I considered cancelling, but my interview subjects and the local crew assured me there were ways to travel around the city of 18 million safely. I did not want to abandon them.

I start here because it relates to one of the most important answers to dilemmas I have tried to answer in this series. How do you find something positive in the worst things in life? And strangely and unexpectedly, here in Mumbai at this time, I did. Let me explain.

I'd just come from Uganda and Tanzania where I'd been chasing the bizarre story of the "laughing disease," an actual condition where people begin laughing uncontrollably for days at a time. The shoot required days of travel by Jeep in remote areas, even by African standards. The experience was wonderful and inspiring but I was exhausted and looking forward what I thought would be a hilarious second leg in Mumbai, India. We were to be shown around by founder of Laughter Yoga and Mumbai resident Madan Kataria.

When the smoke cleared in Mumbai, there was time for me to make a flight from Uganda on schedule. I got on the plane. I was actually feeling fine about the journey until the last leg of the trip from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, when the flight attendants handed out the latest newspapers.

Something told me I shouldn't, but I began to read about the horrific events. I soon came across unusually graphic pictures of the victims at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai. A young commuter had been gunned down and the photo showed him twisted on the floor, lying on his back on top of another person and seemingly staring into the camera. In a second, an intense sense of this stranger's violent end came over me. As a kind of self-taught expert on contagious behaviours, I realized what had happened. I had caught the feeling of this man's death. I began to sweat and felt nauseous. I looked out the window at the inky blackness of the Indian Ocean. My mouth went dry and I realized I was the only white guy on this creaky jetliner gliding toward Mumbai.

We landed. Anxiety combined with jet lag is a funny thing and when I first arrived, I saw death or kidnap around every corner. But as soon as I began talking to people, the feeling quickly dissipated. Mumbai might be the safest place to be right now, given the massive police presence and the fact that a successful terror operation had already been carried out. But then again, maybe not. As I travelled around the city, people stared and smiled at me as if to tell me they were looking out for me.

I met up with Dr. Kataria who wasn't quite his normal jovial self. We walked through his neighbourhood and he brought me to the place where more than a decade ago, he started his first laughter club. Kataria spent many years working as a family doctor, and based the development of laughter yoga on hard science.

These latest Mumbai terror attacks have chilled him. He met regularly with friends for dinners at the Taj Mahal Hotel.

"I could easily have been there," he said.

It was dawn and already a thick sulfurous haze had settled over Mumbai. We arrived in a park where we met a group of about 50 laughter yoga practitioners. Kataria explained that although the group meets every morning, they had not laughed since the attacks began.

"It just wasn't coming," Kataria said. But he felt this morning might be different. The group went through a series of breathing exercises designed to naturally trigger laughter, they slowly began to chortle and guffaw, and soon they were smiling. Under Kataria's exuberant direction, they began laughing while onlookers stared. Minutes later, peals of joyful laughter, echoed across the park.

Following the session, Kataria made a short speech.

"The terror attacks have a positive side," he said.

A few people looked shocked.

"It is uniting us, we are forgetting silly divisions," he said. "And in a strange way these terrible things are forcing us inevitably towards world peace." Kataria encouraged me to interview some of the laughers, and I was startled by the response of a quiet, older man.

"Death is near," the man said. "And that can be good." I was trying to get the "death is good" angle so I pressed on. "When death is near, something happens," he said. We start to remember how much we value the things that matter, even the little things. When death is near, we value life." Hearing that was an intense relief. It gave my turbulent emotions a place to go. For me, feeling death's closeness in Mumbai had turned into a deep yearning and appreciation for the people and things that mattered in my life. Loved ones' voices, Facebook messages and emails were suddenly insanely precious. I even missed the Canadian winter and laughed myself silly at what was happening in Canadian politics. Death's closeness made life almost unbearably beautiful.

Ironically, the one surviving terrorist, mass murderer, Azam Kasav, 21, seemed to come to a similar conclusion. After shooting dozens of innocent people then being shot and beaten almost to death by a mob, he apparently woke up in the ambulance saying: "I want to live." So in the spirit of something on which even the best and the worst of us agree, I humbly offer on this page a summary of the Positivity series.

- - -

The strangely obvious answers to the pursuit of happiness:

Answer: Pursue joy over happiness.

What's new: Science empowers joy more than happiness.

Although we place tremendous importance on the pursuit of happiness, it's pursuing joy itself that may prove more rewarding. The key thing here is that while happiness is an ephemeral concept, joy is quite measurable.

In fact, many of the theories and studies in this Positivity series have been predicated on the arrival of a single breakthrough machine. The fMRI scanner has allowed researchers to see how living brains function and this is changing everything. When scientists began looking at active brains they were often amazed at how much of it is dedicated to positive emotion, or joy. You wouldn't know it, but the brain is a joy machine.

Joy is now quantifiable. Researchers can measure hormone changes, endorphin levels, blood oxygen and watch human connections. Joy - as in laughing, smiling, singing and dancing - rewards its user with health, improved immunity and often a sense of purpose and connection to the community. While happiness suggests a state of almost constant contentment, being joyful means you can be sad too. This is important, because everyone needs to be miserable and sad sometimes, especially people writing about Positivity.

Happiness is historically a religious idea, where happiness was doled out to deserving worshippers by various fun-resenting gods. Today happiness is often something that is supposed to come with shopping.

UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacobini says scientists are now seeing our tremendous capacity for joy and empathy and changing their conclusions about human nature.

"Neuroscience is discovering we are fundamentally good creatures built for joy and empathy," he said in an interview. "Religion, and our moral codes, has been telling us we're bad and we need moral codes to be good. In fact, our primitive nature shows tremendous propensity for empathy, understanding and shared positive emotion. We're basically, primordially good and it's often our moral codes and ideas that bring out our worst."

We may have it backwards. Human joy, and its simple non-judgmental sharing of emotion has the potential to pacify violent cultures and bring wellness to the ill. What's new is that it can be exercised and shared for greater reward. The concept of happiness is a great way of understanding what we're looking for. But joy is a way to actually get it.

Answer: Have fun.

What's new: Science is demonstrating fun increases immunity and social connection.

Fun is, well, fun. But there is now growing scientific proof that having fun itself is healthy, inspiring and a powerful de-stressor. This is because fun, or play, is the source of some critical positive behaviours like laughter, bonding, smiling and humour. Laughter, itself, is believed to have evolved out of the heavy breathing that accompanies rough and tumble play. Basically, the "hah, hah" of catching your breath when panting, became the "ha, ha, ha" of laughter. The sound of laughing may be the original peace signal, allowing humans to horse around, tease and importantly reduce tensions and threats between them.

A study at Loma Linda University, demonstrated that even the anticipation of laughter and a good time causes a momentary increase in immune function. Even thinking about having fun is good for you.

Answer: Sing, even if you can't.

What's new: Singing improves health and longevity.

A scientific study of choir members, showed they had fairly stunning increases in immune function before and after performances. In a recent TV ad campaign, the AIG insurance company, which ironically is currently facing longevity issues, advocated that regular singing can add 16 years to your life.

While one might think the American Idol craze has encouraged people to sing, the overall effect is to reinforce the basic elitism of singing, which goes back to the days of most of us getting booted out of the school choir. The most popular Idol episodes always involve compendiums of footage designed to make us laugh at the silly idiots who think they can sing.

The irony here is that from a health perspective, everyone should be encouraged to sing, even if they can't hold a tune. There's always the shower.

Answer: Laugh.

What's new: Laughter can be cultured, exercised and mastered.

Various researchers in recent years have extolled the various virtues of laughter including: increased immune function, possible protection from heart disease and relief from stress. Although the research is generally preliminary and the researchers complain they still have trouble getting taken seriously, people have taken the information and run with it.

The burgeoning laughter movement is generally predicated on a concept first introduced by laughter-yoga inventor Madan Kataria - the idea that you can essentially force laughter to create real laughter. Laughter is even contagious within a person. So a laugh, even a forced one, can often generate more laughter. Over time, people who "laughercize" find they experience the positive attributes of traditional natural laughter - bonding, relaxation and humour.

One of the most obvious and amazing, and little known, aspects of laughter is its effect on time perception. One theory is that a good hearty laugh causes a dramatic shift in brain lobe dominance. Most of us live in our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain obsessed with abstract thinking - stress, bills, money, taxes, planning the future and regretting the past. A good hearty laugh causes a dramatic shift in brain focus to the limbic area of the brain. The limbic brain, which we share with most mammals, doesn't give a hoot about the future or the past. Have you ever seen a dog plan his week, or a rabbit regret its misspent youth? Since the limbic is only interested in the now, a big belly laugh has the effect of dissipating worries, pressures and regrets. People in the midst of laughing will often notice a sudden weight lifting off their shoulders. That may be their prefrontal cortex taking a break. You are now, as the cliché goes, living in the moment.

This shift in brain dominance is illustrated by the optical illusion in the next column. This is a Necker cube: When you look at the image, since most of us are prefrontal cortex dominant, your mind constructs an image of a three-dimensional cube. However, if you laugh hard at the image - it usually has to be a good exuberant five to10-second laugh - something weird will happen for most people. (I recommend laughing at the absurdity of laughing at the illustration.) If you laugh hard, the illusion will dissipate, and for a few seconds you only see the bunch of lines used to construct the picture. The cube will temporarily disappear as your limbic brain is not interested in illusions. If that happens, your brain has switched over, and you have arrived in the present. Yahoo.

Answer: Lighten up.

What's new: Seriousness is a manifestation of permanent stress.

While many of us get told to lighten up when we get too serious, science is arriving at similar conclusions. Seriousness is usually signalled by the promotion of stress, lack of a sense of humour and a resentment of fun. We do live in an overly serious culture, something anyone can observe by watching a crowded sidewalk on a workday. Cardiologist Michael Miller of the University of Maryland believes an overly serious attitude leads to heart disease and he is in the midst of proving it. Seriousness itself mimics stress reaction where blood vessels tighten and the often damaging hormone cortisol seeps into the bloodstream. Seriousness may be a low level form of permanent stress. Now, science is saying while stress reactions may be normal, they are not healthy. While seriousness is natural a reaction to an ambitious workaholic planet, science is now saying "lighten up."

Answer: Act happy.

What's new: It's been long known that "thinking happy" is effective, but "acting happy" is opening up a whole new batch of possibilities.

People have long known that thinking positive thoughts can change the way you view your life and your world. In fact, positive thinking is one of the key components of cognitive therapy, an effective counter-depression approach that is gaining ground as controversy grows around the effectiveness of antidepressant drugs. New research suggests meditation, mindfulness and a positive outlook can fight depression and elevate mood. However, due to the cerebral focus of academics, much of the work around has naturally been very brain oriented. I believe the real action, is in the body. The Act Happy theory holds that by going through the motions of happiness - smiling, laughing, cheering - you can actually engineer those emotions for real. We have a natural taboo against acted emotion, because historically, fake emotion sometimes signalled dishonesty. But we may be ready to move past that.

Act Happy also points to a central tenet of feeling good - exercise - probably one of the most powerful antidepressants out there. It's so obvious, we fail to see it. If our bodies don't feel good, it's hard for us to be happy.

The amazing thing about Act Happy is that you don't have to be a scientist to explore it. I get emails from readers who have discovered their own Act Happy systems including laughing in the shower, hugging strangers and simply looking up. Try it. Look way up with your eyes while holding your head fixed. For many people, that simple action, produces a tiny positive gleam.

Why? Nobody yet knows.

Answer: The grass isn't actually greener.

What's new: A newish psychological theory demonstrates that all humans come equipped with a powerful psychological immune system that helps us adapt to both terrible and seemingly wonderful circumstances.

Many of us can't help believing there are people out there who have fantastic lives compared with our crappy, boring ones. This probably drives sales of People and US magazines. However, the truth is that even people who are far richer, more beautiful and living in more pleasant climates, are not necessarily happier. According to studies, they are probably about as happy as the rest of us. This is echoed by regular exposes about people who seem to have it all living sad and pathetic lives. This may be because we are designed to make the most of our circumstances, whether good or bad. This amazing quality is part of one of the greatest human strengths - our ability to adapt.

While the theory suggests it's tough to be far happier than other people, it is easy to be more miserable. Sometimes we are corralled into it by a society that favours stress, competition and high expectations.

The idea of a psychological immune system can be used to liberate people from the irrational sense that everyone else has such a fantastic life and you don't. In a profound sense we've been dealt an amazingly equal hand in the poker game of life - the rest is up to us.

Answer: Neuroplasticity.

What's new: Brains were once thought to be unchanging and begin decaying at the onset of adulthood. Some scientists now believe they are capable of change and regeneration.

Neuroplasticity has become a hot issue lately. A dramatic example would the axe attack on Canadian Capt. Trevor Greene in March of 2006. Greene was attacked from behind by an Afghan youth who drove an axe so hard into the back of his head, his brain was essentially split in two. Soldiers in Greene's platoon assumed he was dead, especially when they saw brain matter on the ground. Doctors told the family Greene would likely never recover beyond a vegetative state.

This week, Greene has been conducting interviews on the Canadian radio and TV. That Greene would is even returning to quasi-normal life defies traditional ideas about brain injury and brains themselves.

While the potential medical benefits of neuroplasticity are intriguing, its social aspect is even more intriguing.

Neuroplasticity suggests we have some choice over our brain destiny. It's now been proven that bilingualism offsets dementia considerably, possibly because it keeps more of the brain in use. It was once thought that after our twenties, our brains began a long descent into senility and dementia. In fact, we may have a bit of choice in the matter.

Answer: Joy and happiness are contagious.

What's new: Positive emotion creates more positive emotion.

As part of a huge study published earlier this month in the British Medical Journal, an American research group has claimed that happiness itself is contagious. When they analyzed the data looking for happiness trends, the scientists found that happy people passed on their cheer to people they didn't personally know - and this transferred happiness lasted for up to a year.

"Happiness is like a stampede," said Nicholas Christakis, a professor in Harvard University's sociology department, one of the study's authors. "Whether you're happy depends not just on your own actions and behaviours and thoughts, but on those of people you don't even know."

According to a co-author of the study James Fowler, the study was the first tentative evidence of karma.

"The fact that happiness spreads from person to person to person suggests that these waves of happiness we radiate could eventually wash up on our own shores," he said.

If this is true, we all have some responsibility for our world's state of mind.

The contagiousness of positive emotion is an obvious but overlooked aspect of humanity. Why would laughter, smiling and cheering be so infectious? As far as I can tell, the answer is that for some reason we've been built to get along, enjoy each other's company, and party. When we do, nature rewards us with immunity and longevity.

While smiling probably can't reverse a recession, or cure cancer, it can make someone else feel good. And sooner or later, that smile might come back to you in spades at a critical time. I know it did for me in Mumbai.

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