Posture and Happiness – Surely they’re not linked?
How many times did your parents tell you, or how many times have you told your children to stop slouching?
You’ve likely seen or heard about Amy Cuddy’s 2012 TedTalk where she proposes a simple life strategy for success: Assuming a “power posture” for just two minutes each day to improve your destiny. As she explains, social scientists have noted how expansive and open postures reflect high power, while narrow, closed postures reflect low power in humans as well as in primates. Expansive and open postures not only display power, it seems they can also produce it. Researchers have proven in various studies when people adopt high power poses they increase their feelings of power, action orientation, pain tolerance, and testosterone, while reducing anxiety and stress hormones.
The next time you’re feeling sad and depressed, notice your posture. You’ll likely be slumped over with your neck and shoulders curved forward and head looking down.
While it’s true that you’re sitting this way because you’re sad, it’s likely also true that you’re sad because you’re sitting this way. This is known as embodied cognition, meaning that our mind influences the way our body reacts, but our body form also triggers our mind.
In large part due to Amy Cuddy’s 2012 TED talk, most of us know that two minutes of “power poses” a day can change how we feel about ourselves. This isn’t just about displaying confidence to others around; this is about actually changing your hormones—increased levels of testosterone and decreased levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), in the brain.
We unknowingly express ourself through posture, yet it seems it is also a way in which we are able to shape our lives. While some are looking for power, others simply want to feel more positive and happy. Dr. Erik Peper, San Francisco State University, researched how body posture affects subjective energy levels as well as the ability to generate positive and negative thoughts. In one experiment, his test subjects either skipped or slouched as they walked down the hall. All of the skipping participants reported feeling more energetic, whilst those who had slouched reported decreased energy. Participants who were generally more depressed reported far more depleted energy levels after slouched walking as compared with those who generally were not depressed.
Peper said that previous studies have established that movement and exercise can open up biological pathways that increase happiness and energy. Those feelings can be also consciously accessed when people choose more upright, open body postures, he found. “What we’re saying is that if you start integrating more body movements into your daily life, your energy level stays higher and your quality of life is better,” he said. “It’s very similar to the principle of ‘fake it till you make it’ — you can convince your body to have more energy.”
In addition to emotions, proper alignment puts less stress on the spine and helps you have good posture. Yet, it also helps your skeleton support your body mass as is intended and in turn this keeps your bones strong and healthy. Poor posture, on the other hand, requires your muscles and connective tissue to “hold you up.” Essentially, then, they do the work of your bones and, over time, your bones become weaker.
In another series of experiments, Peper discovered body posture can affect the recall of positive or negative memories. When sitting in a collapsed position and looking downward, participants in a study found it much easier to recall hopeless, helpless, powerless, and negative memories, than empowering, positive memories. When sitting upright and looking upward, it was difficult and for many of the participants nearly impossible to recall hopeless, helpless, powerless, and negative memories and easier to recall empowering, positive memories. An upright posture improves memory in general, some say, because sitting up straight helps increase blood flow and oxygen to the brain, and according to some accounts, by up to 40 percent.
“The brain has an area that reflects confidence, but once that area is triggered it doesn’t matter exactly how it’s triggered,” says Richard Petty, professor of psychology at Ohio State University. “It can be difficult to distinguish real confidence from confidence that comes from just standing up straight … these things go both ways just like happiness leads to smiling, but also smiling leads to happiness.”
When it comes to posture, Petty explains that the way we ultimately feel has a lot to do with the associations we have with being taller. For example, if you take two people and you put one on a chair that’s above the other person, the one that’s looking down will feel more powerful because “we have all these associations” with height and power that “gets triggered automatically when certain movements are made,” he says. The function of your body posture tells your brain that you’re powerful, which, in turn, affects your attitude.
In a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Petty along with other researchers instructed 71 college students to either “sit up straight” and “push out their chest” or “sit slouched forward” with their “face looking at their knees.” While holding their assigned posture, the students were asked to list either three positive or negative personal traits they thought would contribute to their future job satisfaction and professional performance. Afterward, the students were asked to take a survey where they rated themselves on how well they thought they would perform as a future professional.
The researchers found that when the students were in the upright, confident position, they trusted their own thoughts whether those thoughts were positive or negative. On the other hand, when the students sat in a powerless position, they didn’t trust anything they wrote down whether it was positive or negative.
However, those in the upright position likely had an easier time thinking of “empowering, positive” traits about themselves to write down while those in the slouched over position probably had an easier time recalling “hopeless, helpless, powerless, and negative” feelings, according to Erik Peper, professor of psychology at San Francisco State University.
“Emotions and thoughts affect our posture and energy levels; conversely, posture and energy affect our emotions and thoughts,” says one of Peper’s studies from 2012. Like Cuddy, Peper’s research finds that it only takes two minutes to change your hormones, meaning you can basically change the chemistry in your brain while making a cup of tea.
Since posture affects our mood and thoughts so much, the increase of collapsed sitting and walking—from sitting in front of our computer to looking down at our smartphones—may have an effect on the rise of depression in recent years. Peper and his team of researchers suggest that posture is a significant contributor to decreased energy levels and depression. Slouching is also known to result in frequent headaches and neck and shoulder pains.
With so much research proving the influence posture on our mind, Peper suggests hanging photos of people you love slightly higher on the wall or above your desk so that you have to look up. Also, adjust your rear view mirror slightly higher so that you have to sit up taller while driving.
It turns out our parents really did know best.