Browsing the archives for the Techniques category.
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10 Ways to Increase Happiness: The CliffsNotes Version



There’s an excellent (if overenthusiastically titled) article on called “10 Surprisingly Counterintuitive Ways to Be Incredibly Happy.” It lists 10 research-based insights into cultivating long-term happiness.

Here’s a summary of the approaches they recommend, which can also serve as a refresher to re-read once or twice over the next couple of days to a week after you read the original article (assuming you decide to read the original article), if you’d like a way to help ensure the ideas to stick.

  1. Allow feelings of happiness and disappointment to mix
  2. Keep happy friends close (or move near happy friends, or find happy friends nearby)
  3. Learn something new, even if it’s stressful
  4. Consider counseling, which the article describes as producing as much happiness as 32 times the money it costs
  5. Don’t be overeager to seize happiness
  6. Say “no” to almost everything and use “don’t” to stop yourself from unwanted behaviors*
  7. Be comfortable and realistic in recognizing your strengths and weaknesses
  8. Plan for the worst, both to create peace in the moment from knowing you’ve taken dangers into account and to be able to handle trouble more easily and effectively
  9. Give up things you love for short periods in order to appreciate and enjoy them more
  10. Picture realistic accomplishments instead of fantasizing**

*Item #6 strikes me as two separate points: the first is about not overcommitting yourself, which is huge and one of my own personal biggest stumbling blocks; the second is about how to talk to yourself about not doing something, e.g., not saying “I should work out” or “I have to work out” or “I can’t miss my workout,” but rather “I don’t miss workouts.”

**Item #10, for my money, was the least clearly presented, although in general I think the article is great. On this one, the key thing seems to be not giving up on visualizing wonderful things happening, but rather visualizing specific things it’s in your power to accomplish in the way that they might actually happen. For instance, fantasizing about becoming a basketball star may tend to sap your energy and undermine your success; picturing yourself making multiple baskets at an upcoming game and then practicing hard to make that more likely may well do the opposite.

Photo by Shindz

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How Writing Can Help Cure Depression


An excellent article on interviews medical professionals and therapists about using writing to cure depression. Creative writing might very well have positive effects on depression, but the kind of writing the article discusses, and the kind I recommend for working on almost any emotional or motivational issue, is journaling.

Before I go much further than this, I’ll add this disclaimer: of course not all emotional concerns can be addressed through writing and self-help. This is one tool for helping address depression, but it’s not meant to be a cure-all, something that does everything for everyone.

What can a journal accomplish for a depressed person? There appear to be a whole range of benefits:

  • Dr. Michael Rank calls journaling the “most effective and cheapest” form of self-help.
  • A journal can be used with an understanding of idea repair to help fix broken ideas. This is one of the most powerful contributions of cognitive psychology: a tool we can use to change our own thoughts and feelings from damaging to constructive.
  • A journal can create a feedback loop, which can help a person break an old habit, start a new one, or make progress with motivation in general.
  • Dr. James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Austin, reportedly has found that “writing about upsetting personal experiences for just 20 minutes at a time, over three or four days, can result in a significant drop in blood pressure and a healthier immune system.”
  • Therapist Catherine Carlo credits journaling with giving journal writers “a better sense of where they’ve been, where they are, and where they’re going,” according to the article.

In the article, Rank points out that people can feel resistance to starting a journal. This is an understandable feeling, but reversing any habit or emotional condition requires something either internal or external going in a new and not entirely comfortable direction. However, my experience writing about even very disturbing issues in my own life is that it rapidly becomes not only comfortable but actively a relief.

There are several approaches to journaling that can be useful. Carlo recommends journaling in a group. “Just having that unspoken support and encouragement gives [journal writers] courage to write about their feelings” even if the journals aren’t shared, the article quotes her as saying. Carlo also suggests envisioning yourself in a medieval castle while writing, in order to get some distance and perspective.

Recording journal entries with a tape recorder, computer, or smartphone is a viable alternative to written journaling for anyone who doesn’t like to write.

Sharing a journal with someone else can invite help and understanding. On the other hand, some journal writers may prefer to never share what they write in order to create a feeling of complete privacy about the process. When I write about something especially sensitive in my life, I go beyond even that by writing the journal entry and then immediately deleting it. I still reap all the benefits of writing the entry, even though there’s no outward trace left over when I’m done.

People who like to draw, even if only stick figures are involved, can substitute drawings for writing some of the time. While these drawings aren’t usually as clearly-communicated as words, they can sometimes be more expressive and exploratory.

Journaling can also be used to understand how we might not be using time well by logging everything we do (even down to stopping to pick up the phone or take a bathroom break), to provide insight into why we’re acting the way we are (see my article on “How To Improve Willpower Through Writing Things Down: Decision Logging“), or to create a record we can use to go back and understand parts of our lives better, after the fact.

It doesn’t have to be difficult to start journaling. If you can get yourself to sit down at a computer and open a word processor or to pick up a pen and a notebook, you can just write, with no pressure about how much or how often you’ll write, nor what you’ll write about. Journaling gives us each the choice of how to approach difficulties in our lives … and often, even the tools to overcome them.

Photo by paperbackwriter


A Cure for Task List Avoidance


Our culture has a love-hate relationship with task lists. Many of us make them, use them for a while, then eventually start avoiding them, trying not to think about how out of date they’re getting and what there might be on them that we really ought to be doing.

Or we try to do without task lists, using sticky notes and flagged e-mails and calendar reminders and stacks of papers that need something done with them and all kinds of other systems, only to find that there are still a lot of tasks we need to keep in our head, which keep spurring anxiety because when we don’t have time to do them right away, we worry we’ll forget about them completely: parking tickets, birthdays, that leak in the basement, finding out what that weird charge on the phone bill was, getting cholesterol checked …

Some background: all about task lists
I won’t go into a complete discussion of why I think the solution to this is a single, well-organized task list with categories, because I’ve already talked about a lot of basic task list issues in other posts, and I don’t want to waste your time with repetitions. If you haven’t read them yet, though, here are some articles from the wayback machine:

Why Task Lists Fail
4 Ways to Make Sure You Get a Task Done
The Eight Things You Can Do With a Piece of Paper
Getting Rid of the Little, Distracting Tasks
My Top 1 Task
Weed Out Task Lists With the 2-Minute Rule
Don’t Use Your Inbox as a To Do List
Useful Book: Getting Things Done
How I’m Keeping My E-mail Inbox Empty

When things start to slide
But even if you’ve followed my recommendations in these articles, do you ever find that your task management begins to slide–that you start falling back on notes or keeping things in your inbox, or you spawn new areas of your task list into which you throw tasks blindly, or you just try to keep everything in your head? Every once in a while this happens to me, so if it doesn’t sound familiar, my hat’s off to you. If it does sound familiar, though, then I may be able to offer an easy way out. All it takes is a little focus and time; it’s very low-stress.

The key is that a complete task management system relies on a certain amount of faith: you have to have faith that you’re actually going to get to at least some of the most important tasks on your list. If you lose confidence, if you start thinking you’re going to miss something on the list, then you may stop putting your more important items on the list, reasoning that it’s better to be a little flexible about what goes on the list than to risk not getting things done. As soon as you do that, you have a reason to avoid your list, because some of your most pressing tasks aren’t even on it, and this snowballs.

Or it can happen the other way around: you feel a little rushed and jot a few tasks on sticky notes or try to just keep them in memory, and then you realize that your list is no longer reliable and you lose confidence in it.

Fixing task list confidence
What’s the fix? Go back to basics, put your faith in your list, get everything on it, and pay attention to your list regularly. The steps are pretty easy:

  1. Whenever you think of something you need to do (or would like to do) that isn’t on the list, put on the list right away. If you can’t always do that, then you need a different system: it doesn’t help to have a task list that you can’t add to in real time.
  2. Keep a very small number of do-these-soonest items set apart. You can do this by assigning priorities, establishing a “very short-term tasks” category, tagging these top items, or any other means that works for you, but you need to be able to identify your top four to eight tasks. Any more than that and you’ll have a hard time doing the next step.
  3. Put the task you want to get done first at the top of the list. Ideally, put the task in order from want-to-get-done-first on down, though it’s really that top task that’s essential.
  4. As you get tasks done, bring more tasks into the “very short-term tasks” set and keep putting the next task you want to get done first at the top of the list.
  5. Don’t put important tasks anywhere else: just on your list. Between adding tasks, looking tasks up, and crossing tasks off, you’ll be forced to
  6. Visit your task list regularly, so that it never starts getting out of date.
  7. Finally, do maintenance on your task list, re-prioritizing and recategorizing as necessary, checking in on your pending items, deleting items that it turns out you don’t have to or want to do after all. This should be don’t-think-about-it work, which you do separately from actually getting your tasks done (except that if you have some very quick tasks, it’s often more efficient to do them then and there, if you have any time at all, than to keep shuffling them around–even if they’re not very high priority). This seventh step is optional: if you maintain a good “very short-term tasks” group and keep choosing one of those tasks to go to the top, the rest of your task list can be a mess–but it being in good order makes keeping the “very short-term tasks” group up to date much easier.

Worried it won’t get done? Overwhelmed by the list?
This solution solves two distinct problems: anxiety about not getting tasks done and being overwhelmed by everything on your list.

The anxiety is alleviated by identifying that top task. If it really is the thing you should be doing first, then you don’t have to worry that you’re neglecting something more important. By contrast, if you didn’t have a top task, then you might be tempted to pick off the most inviting or easy-looking tasks, or to avoid your task list altogether because of not wanting to face the worry.

The feeling of being overwhelmed is taken away when you just ask yourself simple questions like “Does this belong in my list of very short-term tasks?” and “Which of this handful of tasks should I do first?” Just like going through e-mail or papers, going through a task list can be especially stressful if you look at it as a whole, because no one can do a whole bunch of things at once (see “How to Multitask, and When Not To“). By simply going through your items in the order you find them, you can make individual decisions that are easier and more pleasant than trying to grapple with a stack of decisions could ever be.

Photo by heymrlady

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The Top 5 Body Language Mistakes in Photos


Photos are a funny thing: they can often communicate things about us that are hard to convey in words, but many of us, when we’re being photographed, stop acting like ourselves: we try to force smiles, feel uncomfortable in front of the camera, or pose in a position we’d never take in real life.

I’m no expert on how to get the perfect author photo, but I do know how to avoid some major mistakes because of my interest in and study of body language and facial expressions. As I mentioned in a recent post about Michael Port’s Book Yourself Solid, photos on business books are often the worst offenders, but I see many of these problems in author and promotional photos of all kinds. Here are some things to avoid.

  1. A fake smile. A true smile can really light up a photograph, but considering we’re relating with cameras and photographers and not with friends or family when we get our picture taken, they can be hard to come by. People often can identify fake smiles without even trying, making the subject of the photo look sad and desperate. Even if you know what the difference between a real smile and a fake smile is, it’s next to impossible to smile convincingly without having something to smile about. Consider going without a smile, having the photographer tell you dumb jokes, or talking about something you’re passionate about–although this last strategy can result in a lot of photos of you with your mouth open. If that happens, stop talking and take time to reflect and create non-talking smiling opportunities every few sentences.
  2. Crossed arms. Unfortunately, a lot of businesspeople seem to think crossed arms indicate power and confidence. What they usually indicate instead is anxiety. We tend to cross our arms over our chest or stomach as a protective measure, an instinctive attempt to keep our vital organs from being damaged. Even touching our hands together or holding something that connects our hands is just a diluted version of crossed arms. Alternatives include having hands at our sides or behind our backs.
  3. Hands in pockets. I think this is usually meant to suggest “Hey, I’m laid back and relaxed,” but in body language terms it often means “Please go away: I don’t want to talk to you.” This is not an ideal message for your photo. Interestingly, having hands in your pockets with thumbs sticking out, while still not especially inviting and open, tends to convey confidence, so if you absolutely have to hide your fingers, at least show your thumbs.
  4. Crossed ankles. This seems to be another favorite “relaxed” pose, but in body language it commonly translates as “I’m holding something back” or “I have something to hide.” I can’t blame people for wanting to cross their arms over their chests or cross their ankles when in front of the camera, because lenses really can make us feel vulnerable unless we’re very used to being photographed or can consciously befriend the camera. Still, uncross those ankles! In addition to looking less sketchy, this helps us actually feel more open, because our body language doesn’t just transmit our emotions: it also helps shape them (see “Using Body Language to Change Our Moods“).
  5. Touching the face. I think the intention is to imply “thoughtful,” but when we touch our faces in real life, it often more specifically signals doubt, or at least deliberation. For instance, you may be touching your face as you read this if you’re still trying to decide what to do with what I’m saying. If the chin is resting on the hand, the message can be boredom. In author photos, there’s a tendency for face touching to appear to be self-doubt, which again is probably not what you want to advertise.

While there are other mistakes we can make, these five are the big ones, and avoiding them helps convey a sense of openness and reliability. Actually, though, the best way to use these pointers might not be to try to avoid the five mistakes, but to use them as a red flag and realize when we’re not comfortable in front of the camera. The most effective photos won’t be ones where we’ve just managed to avoid body language errors, but ones where we’re actually feeling open, energetic, and engaged. With that said, the worst promotional and author photos, at least in terms of the poses the subjects take, will be the ones where these errors slip by and go unnoticed–so at the least, let me implore you not to fall for any of them.

In case you’re interested in learning more, much of the material for this post comes from things I learned from Barbara and Allen Pease’s exceptional resource The Definitive Book of Body Language.

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How to Make Small Talk


Small talk has never been one of my great skills. I love to talk to groups, and I enjoy a lively one-on-one conversation, but for years I’ve been one of those people who at social events would kind of sigh and do my best to get through the thing without too many awkward moments. Starting and stopping short conversations on light subjects didn’t seem to be something I did well.

I realized recently that this was something I’d like to change, and it occurred to me that small talk, like most skills, was very likely something I could improve with some study and practice (see “Do you have enough talent to become great at it?“). So I went out and did some studying, and this past weekend I had several opportunities to practice, including an event in another state where I knew almost no one.

The result? I’m still not a master of small talk, but the improvement was dramatic, and I expect things to keep getting better as I get more experience. Here are some of the tips I learned that helped me. In a follow-up post, I’ll include links to articles I read on the subject, which can offer further information and ideas. I also hope to have a chance to write up pointers on how to remember names.

1. Small talk is important
Many of us don’t take small talk very seriously, but the essence of small talk is making connections with other people. As human beings, connections with other people are about the most helpful and rewarding thing we can have in our lives. Even if you’re just being practical, it helps to have a lot of friends and friendly acquaintances.

2. No one is forcing us
Even if someone manhandles me into the back of a van and  throws me into a party without my permission, I don’t have to talk to anybody. Whenever we have conversations, we’re choosing to have those conversations. Why not do it well?

3. Collect things to talk about
Good conversation involves both talking and listening. In order to have something to contribute, it helps to actively look around for interesting topics that might be of interest to almost anybody: news, entertainment, strange local happenings, unusual things that have happened to us, etc. Then when a silence in the conversation opens up, we already have something to fill it in with that could start a good new conversation. This seemed obvious to me after I started to do it, but the idea of keeping a few things to talk about the next time I was in a social situation had never really crossed my mind.

4. Listen
Lecturing or going into too much detail about something that isn’t fascinating to the listener is bad conversation. Leaving openings for the other person to respond and then paying close attention to what they say makes things flow easily. It’s especially helpful to ask further questions when someone answers a question. Example:

YOU: Where are you from, originally?
YOU: (Instead of just saying “Oh.”) So how did you come to live around here?

Watching body language is also helpful. We can keep an eye out for signs we’re boring the other person, for increased interest, for discomfort, etc.

5. Pick specific, friendly subjects of broad interest
Conversations can fall flat when we choose topics that are too general (“Sure has been sunny lately!”), too specific (“I’m trying to figure out how much arch support I need.”), or too controversial for the person you’re talking to (some people like to talk sex, religion, and politics and are bored with milder subjects; others are the opposite).

If you know the person you’re talking to, personal topics (“How’s the baby?” or “Did you ever get that car you were interested in?”) can be especially good.

6. It’s not an interview
For years, my habit in conversations has been to ask questions–lots and lots of questions. Sometimes this works wonderfully, and it’s great for me as a writer. At other times, the person doesn’t feel comfortable being the subject of intense questioning. Light conversation goes more easily when it’s not just a question-and-answer session.

7. Don’t pretend to know things you don’t
Under most circumstances, stopping the conversation to say you don’t know about something someone mentioned is actually a good thing: other people get to share topics they’re knowledgeable about, you get to learn, and nobody has to pretend to know what’s going on when they’re really lost. My experience is that people generally respect an intelligent question, even about something they think of as basic.

8. Wrap it up and move on
At most events, it works better to have several shorter conversations than one long conversation. This depends on the circumstances, of course, but it often works well to find a graceful exit to each conversation before it grows to monopolize the whole time available. This is probably my weakest skill, though. In most cases, all I come up with is polite versions of “Well, I ought to talk to other people now.” Any comments or suggestions on this particular point would be welcome, and I’ll update this item down the road when I have more information.

9. Enjoy people
If I don’t feel like spending time with other people, I’m not likely to make good conversation. It’s important to come into a social situation with a willingness to enjoy the other people there–even (maybe especially) if they’re not the kinds of people we usually spend time with.

10. Open with a general comment plus a specific question
One conversation opener that seems to work well is making a general comment about the situation and following it up with a specific question, for instance “I had no idea there were going to be so many people here. Are these always this popular?” or “I read that the band that’s playing later is great. Have you heard them before?”

Of course, there are other good ways to start a conversation; this is just one good approach.

11. Ask questions about things you observe
Depending on who you are and who you’re talking to, different kinds of questions about the other person can be another easy conversation opener, for example “That’s a great hat! Where did you get it?” or “Is that one of the new iPhones?” or (after reading name tag that includes a company name) “Oh, you’re from Gunderson & Gunderson? My uncle used to work there.”

12. Don’t force it
At least a couple of the sources I read strongly urged seeing movies, watching TV, keeping up on top radio hits, following the news, and otherwise building up your store of general knowledge of current events and pop culture. On this point, I’m going to have to break with the suggestions I’ve heard. If you’re interested in current events or pop culture and want to use them as a way to make more conversation, great. Also, if your day-to-day life involves a very limited range of topics (for instance, your thesis, your cat, and that’s it), then it can really help to expose yourself to books, movies, news, local happenings, or other topics you can use to connect with the people around you. However, most of us are exposed to enough current events and pop culture that seeking out more just to aid conversation strikes me as a bad idea.

First and foremost, I think it’s important to be ourselves, by which I mean not to pretend interest in anything that doesn’t genuinely interest us. If someone’s talking to me alone about a subject that really doesn’t interest me, the ideal is for me to either find a way to get interested or to offer a change of topic. This is especially true if I end up talking with someone who’s very self-occupied and not picking up on my body language or signals.

If it’s not possible to change the subject, it might be a good time to excuse myself to get a drink, find someone I meant to catch up with, or head home for the night.

Yet I don’t often run into people who aren’t interesting to talk to once I get started. Here’s hoping that with some of this information, you won’t either.

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Body Language for Actors: Common Mistakes


UPDATED: I had an interesting e-mail discussion with my father, professional actor J. Louis Reid. My takeaway is that anyone who’s serious about method acting would do better to ignore all of this in favor of connecting with emotions directly. As my mother used to say of mixed food at dinner, “it all goes to the same place”: feeling the emotions your character is conveying should encourage your body to move accordingly.

With that said, I still have to say that I’ve seen a lot of plays where the below mistakes take away from the performers’ ability to convince me that they are the characters, so if you’re not actively pursuing a method acting approach or are critiquing someone else’s performance, the below may still be of great use.

There are potentially valuable lessons for actors in one of my favorite areas of behavior study, body language. From moment to moment we communicate far more to each other than our words would suggest, and learning to read body language opens up new channels of communication to understand much better when people are feeling annoyed, confident, defensive, or flirtatious, how serious they are about what they’re saying, what they intend, what they want, and how they’re reacting to you.

How good are actors at body language? As you can probably guess, there’s quite a range. My sense is that what works best as a rule is method acting, in which the actor is conjuring up the same emotions the character is feeling, usually (as I understand it) by connecting with events and memories from the actor’s own life. For instance, if I were playing the part of an athlete who had just lost an important game, I might conjure up my recollection of losing in the finals of the school spelling bee in 4th grade by misspelling “chief” (I had trouble with “i before e” for quite a while, partly because of my last name). Method acting appears to work in part because some of the body language the character would be showing comes out as a natural expression of the actor’s emotions. Regardless, a better awareness of body language can help create stronger performances.

Of course, this knowledge is useful for a lot more than acting and public speaking. Surprisingly, just mimicking a gesture or position that tends to go with a certain emotion can help evoke that emotion itself (see “Using Body Language to Change Our Moods“).

Limitations of body language
Body language is not a simple one-for-one system of communication: when interpreting body language, it’s important to take in the whole sense of what’s going on and not fixate on one particular gesture. For example, if I say something and then scratch my nose, it might mean I’m a dirty rotten liar–or it might mean that I’m recovering from a mild sunburn.

With that caution, let’s look at some common body language mistakes–or if that’s too cut-and-dried a term, perhaps we can call them “infelicities”–seen in both beginning and experienced actors. We’ll look at most of these in more detail in later articles, but the point of this piece is to point out a few specific things to avoid.

“I don’t really mean it”
Here’s one that appears regularly even in major studio films, most often when someone’s professing their love for someone else: the head shake. The actor says “Darling, I love you more than life itself,” and all the time he’s shaking his head slowly as though overcome with the passion of it all. He’s not overcome with the passion of it all, though: he’s probably worrying a little about how his real life wife is feeling about the scene, or thinking about how little he likes the actress who’s playing his love interest. To borrow language from another sphere, “No means no.”

People do shake their heads for emphasis when they’re saying something negative, though. For instance, if someone says “I won’t leave you” or “That’s not what happened,” a head shake just reinforces the point.

“Gosh, I’m nervous!”
Of course being on stage can be nerve-wracking. Unfortunately, if the nervousness comes through in a character who is meant to be confident, focused, or relaxed, the character becomes hard to believe. Watch out for repetitive motions, tapping, fidgeting, clasping hands together, holding something in front of you (like a pencil or a hat) to connect your hands, or holding your arm or leg (a reassurance gesture). Of course, the best way to stop being nervous is to be so submerged in the character that you’re feeling the character’s emotions instead of your own.

“Say that to my face”
Personal space is something that actors seem to get better at with experience, so issues with it are especially common in, for instance, school productions. We all have a zone of personal space around us, and generally speaking, people don’t enter that space unless their interests are either romantic or aggressive. This is one reason that doctors and dentists (for example) can be so unnerving: to do their jobs, they have to violate personal space in a big way.

If someone’s being loud and aggressive from across the room, or if a character is trying to seduce another character but is sitting at the other end of the couch, it’s hard to take the intention seriously: seduction is much more convincing within a few inches of the body, and we can see a fight coming if Mary gets just a foot away from Ellen’s face and Ellen doesn’t back down.

“I want you! But not really”
Love and attraction are hard to convey even when the personal space issue is managed well. People who are interested in others use a complex combination of courting gestures that vary based on a person’s personality, level of interest, gender, sexuality, status, and other measures. What’s least convincing, though, is an attempted seduction where there are no courting gestures. If a straight woman sits down and entwines her legs or brushes her hair from her face, we start getting the signal that there’s interest there even if no words have been spoken. Gaze also plays a part, as people experiencing attraction often glance briefly–or stare openly–at the objects of their of affection. People who are trying to convey romantic interest find excuses to touch each other, face their bodies toward one another, and show off their prize physical traits (for instance, by a woman putting her fingers together and resting her chin on them, a gesture called “the platter,” to show off her face). You can read about courting gestures in more detail in “How to Tell If Someone’s Interested in You, and Other Powers of Body Language“.

Photo by slava.toth

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Four Ways to Fight Depression


Last week, a reader e-mailed me about a struggle with depression: while this person was working, good moods were possible, but at other times depression would creep in. Here are some suggestions that came out of that discussion.

In terms of immediate help, here are some things that might be especially helpful to try but that require at least a little time and effort.

First, walking somewhere beautiful–by a stream, in a park, in a quiet and beautiful park of town, or anything like that, especially near water and in natural places–can quickly make a difference in mood. It’s a calming practice that allows time to think, but it also gets your body moving and puts you in an environment that will tend to lift your spirits. I know it sounds so simple that it’s almost silly, but the research suggests this is an unusually good way to change your mood: see The Benefits of Quick, Easy, Pleasant Exercise .

A second approach is to get out and do something with people you enjoy spending time with, or to find a group that does something you enjoy ( is a good place to look). The moods of people nearby us affect our own moods, so that just spending time with happy people can help us be happier. (See Want to Reduce Stress? Increase Social Time.)

It seems that you can get some similar benefits sometimes with a pet (especially a dog or cat), if you enjoy pets, and I’ve certainly experienced pet-driven happiness myself.

Third, volunteering can be an enormous boost to mood and feelings of self-worth: there’s a different feeling to doing something good that you don’t have to do and don’t get paid for. Anything from donating blood to volunteering to shelve books at a local library to helping out at a fundraising event for a local charity can offer these benefits. Alternatively, you could just reach out to people you know, helping them with a difficult job–moving, for example.

A fourth thing that I can think of takes very little time and effort, although it will probably also sound silly: make yourself smile. Surprisingly, making an expression as though you have an emotion can set off the same neurophysiological reactions you would have if you actually have that emotion, so that a fake smile can become a real smile. See Using Body Language to Change Our Moods.

Each of these approaches is a short-term fix that reflects a long-term habit that can help mood: exercise, time in nature, time with friends, a sense of helping others, and a conscious effort to encourage positive emotions all can help create happiness as they become more habitual.

If you find that short-term approaches like this aren’t helping, a good cognitive therapist really might be able to open up new doors, provide essential support, and cultivate habits that support lasting happiness. I’d like to be sure to mention that I’m not  a licensed therapist myself, and this shouldn’t be construed as professional or expert advice.

Photo by tanakawho

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How to Tell a Real Smile from a Fake Smile


We’d all like to think we can see through a faker, somebody who’s pretending to smile but who inside is plotting your ruin, reeling in horror from your interior decor, or wishing they were somewhere else. Unfortunately, as a pretty much endless supply of dishonest politicians, successful confidence schemers, and cheating significant others proves, we’re not so great at it. This post will show you how to spot most fake smiles, largely using research from the near-legendary psychologist Paul Ekman and others who have worked with him or built on his findings.

By the way, I don’t want to suggest that fake smiles are entirely a bad thing. If someone wins a prize you were hoping to win and the best you can offer is a fake smile, that seems far kinder to me than offering the grimace or tears that might come more naturally. Fake smiles are sometimes appropriate social facilitators, and if the intention is right, they can sometimes be used to create real smiles. At other times, they’re danger signals, and at those times it helps to be able to see them for what they are.

Happiness moves muscles that are nearly impossible to fake
The reason we have a chance of telling the difference between real and fake smiles is that our unconscious response to happiness moves muscles that are next to impossible to move voluntarily. I’m sure you’ve had the occasion to have to fake-smile sometimes. How do you go about it? You raise the corners of your mouth, of course, using a muscle called the  zygomatic major. If you’re really putting your all into it, you’ll even scrunch up your eyes, and that will up the fool factor a lot.

Real happiness, though, moves muscles you might find harder to manage, especially above the eyes. We’ll look at those more closely in the following section, where I describe several things to look for in a real smile.

1. Are the eyes involved?
If you don’t see the muscles around the eyes move at all, the smile is almost certainly fake, regardless of how wide it is. Real smiles crinkle up the skin to the sides of the eyes, slightly dip the outer ends of the eyebrows, and lower the fold of skin between the eyebrow and the eyelid. These last two cues are very telling, but take some work to get used to spotting.

2. Is it lopsided?
Movies and novels would have us believe that a lopsided grin is an impish, playful, honestly happy expression. In real life, genuine smiles are normally symmetrical, while fake smiles can sometimes happen more on one side of the face than the other.

3. Is there an echo?
This is my own observation rather than something taken from research, but my experience is that when a real smile goes away, there’s a sort of echo or slow fading of the expression. Even when the smile is done, the smiler may look just a little happy for a moment. Compare that to the way a fake smile sometimes simply vanishes as though it never happened.

Quiz yourself
There’s a quiz on the BBC Web site that does a great job of testing the ability to recognize a real smile from a fake one. Ready to try it out? Go to .

Use with caution
When applying your understanding of smiles to guess at what someone else is thinking, please remember that no one part of the body gives a complete account of what’s going on. Body language recognition can be very useful and often very accurate, but it is only a set of clues, not absolute indications.

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Photo by niznoz


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