Did you know you can make yourself feel happier just by the way you walk? That’s the implication of a study recently published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry examining the connection between walking style and emotion.
The design of the study is pretty interesting. Researchers put the subjects on a treadmill, and used a clever device that analyzed their gait to give them feedback about their walking style. Some participants were guided to modulate their walk to resemble a slumped, shuffling sad person, while others were directed to walk like an exuberant, broad-shouldered happy person. To prevent bias, none of the guidance was verbal. Subjects were simply told to walk so that the needle on the device moved to the right (and the direction was always right, to prevent bias).
While the participants were walking, the researchers read aloud a list of positive and negative descriptive words, and asked which applied to them. Later, they were asked to recall as many words as possible from this list. Essentially, the researchers were measuring what’s called affective memory bias, a phenomenon where our memory is colored by our emotions. By nature, humans have a negative affective memory bias, in other words, we tend to remember negative events more than we remember positive ones. But the people who were coached to “walk happy” remembered fewer negative words from the original list. Their negative bias was decreased by the happy walking.
While this doesn’t directly say that walking a certain way can make you happier, it holds a strong suggestion that there is a link between gait and emotion. This builds on well-established research that facial expression can change your mood, and adds to a growing body of knowledge about the connection between our bodies and our minds. This field of work is called embodied cognition, and it examines the effect of physical sensations and movements on our emotions, behavior, and decision-making. A lot of the findings seem surprising because they suggest a causal path that is different from the one we’re used to. We think of our rational minds as being in control, and our bodies as obedient minions that follow. But increasingly research is revealing that our bodies have far greater influence over our minds than we once thought. And that opens up a new pathway to emotional wellbeing: by adjusting our posture, gaze, and gait, we can actually have greater control over our mysterious and mercurial emotions.
Over the past few years, I’ve learned a lot about the connection between body and mind, mostly by observing myself. Yoga has been a big part of that. I’ve been practicing yoga for 15 years, but in the early days for me it was mostly about physical toning and getting a workout. But over the past few years I’ve come to see yoga as a meditation, paying more attention to my breath and gaze to quiet my mind. Last year I did a course of rolfing (a kind of very, very deep massage coupled with physical alignment lessons aimed at releasing long-held tension and patterns in the body) and I was struck by what the subtle shifts in alignment could do for my mental state. I’ve learned, for example, that there are certain postures we adopt when we feel anxious (we get small, tucking our tailbones and rolling our shoulders in) that actually have the effect of constricting our breathing and making the nervous feeling worse. Being conscious of the body and doing the opposite can actually ease the anxiety we feel. From both research and personal experience, I can definitely say it’s worth experimenting with making adjustments to your movements to see how it influences your mood. It’s kind of like “hacking” your posture to help your mind.
And if you really want to go whole-hog on the happy walking thing, check out the video above of “The Skipper,” which has been sitting in my files to share with you for awhile. I think he’s right that there is no more joyous way to get from point A to point B, even if it makes you feel a little silly.