10 Clever Tricks to Trigger Positive Emotions

UPDATED: June 15, 2023
PUBLISHED: August 11, 2022
10 Clever Tricks to Trigger Positive Emotions

People who see the glass as half-full are certainly happier than the pessimists of the world, and learning to think positively is worthwhile. However, changing the way you think can be surprisingly tricky, especially when the going gets tough. What if there were a way—a shortcut or hack—that positively affected how you feel when you just can’t seem to shake the blues?

Quick and effective exercises can help you feel happier, avoid anxiety, increase your willpower, deepen relationships and boost confidence.

A few years ago, I came across a simple idea that has been validated in a multitude of experiments and given rise to quick and effective exercises that can help you feel happier, avoid anxiety, increase your willpower, deepen relationships and boost confidence. Perhaps most surprising of all, it does not involve trying to change how you think.

The idea dates back to the late 19th century and the work of Victorian philosopher William James. While working at Harvard University, James proposed a radical new theory (the James-Lange theory of emotion) about the link between thinking and behavior. According to conventional wisdom, your thoughts and feelings cause you to behave in certain ways. Feeling happy makes you smile, and feeling sad makes you frown. James wondered whether the exact opposite might also be true, namely that the way you behave can change how you feel.

According to James’ theory, forcing your face into a smile should make you feel happy, and frowning should make you feel sad. James realized that if his theory were true, people should be able to create any feeling they desired simply by acting as if they were experiencing that emotion. Although the potential power of his idea clearly energized James (he often referred to it as “bottled lightning”), it was years ahead of its time and received scant attention from his fellow academics.

In the late 1960s, psychologist James Laird, a professor of psychology at Clark University, stumbled across James’ theory and decided to test it. Laird knew that he couldn’t simply ask people to smile and then report how they felt, because they might guess what the experiment was about and play along.

To overcome the problem, Laird advertised for volunteers to take part in a study on the electrical activity of facial muscles. When the volunteers arrived at the laboratory, Laird placed electrodes between their eyebrows and at the corners of their mouths and jaw. The electrodes were fake, but the clever cover story enabled Laird to discreetly manipulate his volunteers’ faces into a smile or frown.

To create a frown, the volunteers were asked to contract the muscles of their jaw and between their eyebrows. For the happy expression, they were asked to draw back the electrodes at the corners of their mouths. After they had contorted their faces into the required positions, participants were asked to fill out a “mood adjective check list.”

The results were remarkable. Exactly as predicted by James, the volunteers felt happier when they forced their faces into smiles and sadder when they were frowning.

Curious about this remarkable finding, other scientists started to carry out their own versions of Laird’s groundbreaking experiment. Rather than repeatedly placing fake electrodes on people’s faces, each laboratory produced its own version of the study.

In a five-part study inspired by photographers who encourage people to smile by getting them to say, “Cheese,” University of Michigan researchers asked volunteers to read stories, pronounce words and even just repeat vowels, primarily focusing on “ü.” Researchers looked at both the facial expressions prompted by the vowels and the body temperature changes that resulted from muscle contractions restricting blood flow in order to determine the effect expressions had on participants’ moods. Similarly, researchers in Germany conducted a two-part study in which participants were asked to hold writing utensils between their teeth (thus forcing their faces into a smile) or between their lips (thus pulling their faces into a frown). The participants were asked to complete several tasks while both holding their writing implements in those positions and looking at cartoons. Afterwards, participants were asked how amusing they had found the cartoons—and, as expected, the results once again supported the James-Lange theory. In short, behaving as if you were experiencing a certain emotion triggered that same emotion.

Other researchers have set out to discover whether the “as if” principle also worked in other areas of everyday life. Results have shown that very small changes in your actions can have a fast and long-lasting effect on your happiness, motivation, willpower, creativity and personality. So why not adopt more positive actions in your life?

Here are 10 positive-action exercises to try:

1. Feeling happy

There is more to lifting your mood than forcing your face into a brief, unfelt smile that finishes in the blink of an eye. Instead:

  • Relax the muscles in your forehead and cheeks, and let your mouth drop slightly open.
  • Contract the muscles near the corners of your mouth, drawing them back toward your ears. Make the smile as wide as possible and extend your eyebrow muscles slightly upward. Hold the resulting expression for about 20 seconds.

Try to incorporate this mood-brightening exercise into your daily routine by, for example, smiling just before you answer the telephone or setting a reminder on your computer.

2. Moving on

Struggling to get over an upsetting choice you had to make? Xiuping Li, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore Business School, conducted a three-part study about the benefits of “enclosing” negative thoughts and experiences. Participants were asked to write down “a recent decision that they regretted,” “a strong personal desire that had not been satisfied,” reactions to a depressing story and an “event about which they felt regretful.” Li then asked some of the participants to seal their responses and a survey on the strength of their recall in an envelope and others to just return the materials. Those who enclosed their responses in an envelope reported a decrease in negative emotions and a greater sense of closure. Although purely symbolic, the “enclosure” of the negativity or regret still helped them reach psychological closure.

Next time you want some help getting over the loss of a client or a bad business decision, write a brief description of what happened on a piece of paper, put the paper in an envelope and kiss the past goodbye. And if you really want to have fun, reach for the matches and convert your envelope into a pile of ashes.

3. The power of secrets

The more couples get to know one another, the more they disclose personal information. Psychologist Arthur Aron, professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, wondered whether asking two people to disclose personal information (and so acting as if they were more intimate) would make them feel especially close. In the first of a three-part study, Aron paired strangers and gave each one of two sets of 36 questions which allowed them to open up about increasingly private aspects of their lives. The pairs were then asked to rate how they felt about each other. As predicted, the questions promoted a sense of intimacy and attraction. When using this technique to deepen your relationship with a colleague, family member or friend, take things one step at a time and make sure you’re both comfortable with the conversation.

Here are 10 sample questions from Aron’s experiment:

  • “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?”
  • “Would you like to be famous? In what way?”
  • “Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?”
  • “What would constitute a ‘perfect’ day for you?”
  • “When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?”
  • “If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?”
  • “What is your most treasured memory?”
  • “What is your most terrible memory?”
  • “For what in your life do you feel most grateful?”
  • “If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?”

4. Pull me–push you

If you are dieting, try behaving as if you don’t like unhealthy food. For instance, pushing an object away from you (and so behaving as if you didn’t like it) might make you dislike the object. Whereas, pulling it toward you (behaving as if you liked it) is likely to make you feel far more positively about it. Next time you are confronted with a plate of sugary or fried snacks, simply push the plate away from you and feel the temptation fade.

Conversely, if you are in sales and want to make prospective clients feel more positive about a product, try placing it on a table in front of them and encouraging them to slide it closer.

5. Muscle magic

People who are highly motivated often tense their muscles as they prepare to spring into action. But research from Iris Hung, an associate professor of marketing at the National University of Singapore, has shown that the opposite is also true—you can boost your willpower simply by tensing your muscles. Next time you feel your willpower draining away, try, for example, making a fist, contracting your biceps, pressing your thumb and first finger together or gripping a pen in your hand.

Similarly, if you want to persevere with something, try crossing your arms. Ron Friedman, social psychologist and founder of ignite80, asked people to tackle difficult anagrams with their arms either crossed or resting on their thighs. By folding their arms, people were acting as if they were persistent, and they continued trying to solve the puzzle for longer than those with their hands on their thighs.

6. Breaking habits

You can help crack unwanted habits by behaving as if you are someone who never gets stuck in a routine. Professor of psychology Ben Fletcher and professor emeritus Karen Pine from the University of Hertfordshire in the U.K. carried out research in which people trying to lose weight were asked to adopt a more flexible approach to life. The behavioral flexibility and change in habits helped people break their bad patterns. Try to undo unwanted habits by behaving as if you are a flexible person and carrying out one of the following every few days:

  • Try an unusual form of food.
  • Visit a new art gallery or museum.
  • Go to a shop that you have never visited before.
  • Make time to see a film that you don’t think you will enjoy.

7. How to negotiate

The chairs that you sit in affect your behavior, which in turn affects how you think. In the final experiment of a six-part study by Joshua Ackerman, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, volunteers were given either hard chairs or soft-cushioned chairs to sit on. At the same time, they were paired with strangers to role-play the negotiation of selling a new car. Those in the hard chairs sat rigidly, while those sitting in the soft chairs felt comfortable—and sure enough, their behavior was significantly different. Those in the hard chairs were more inflexible in their negotiations and demanded a higher price for the car.

Hard furniture creates hard behavior, which underlines the importance of having soft furnishings in your home and office (except for when you need to be the bad cop).

8. The power of warm

From an early age, we associate the feeling of warmth with safety and security (think hugs and open fires), and coldness with unfriendliness (think getting the cold shoulder and “icy stare”). The “as if” principle predicts that warming people up should make them feel far more friendly. Experiment one of a two-part study conducted by University of Colorado psychologist Lawrence Williams suggests that this is indeed the case. Williams handed volunteers either a hot cup of coffee or a cold drink, asked them to read a short description of a stranger, and then asked them to rate the stranger’s personality. The volunteers who had been warmed up by the coffee thought that the stranger seemed much friendlier than those who had been clutching iced drinks.

If you are trying to befriend someone, skip the frozen cocktails in an air-conditioned bar and instead opt for a steaming mug of tea in front of a roaring fire.

9. All together now

Want to get a group to bond together quickly and believe in a single cause? Get them to act in unison. Scott Wiltermuth, an associate professor at the University of Southern California, gathered groups of three volunteers. Some of the groups were asked to walk around the university campus normally, while others were formed into a small army and asked to march around the same route in step. In another part of the study, one group was asked to simply listen to a national anthem, a second group to sing in time to the music, a third to sing and move in time to the music, and a fourth to sing and move—but asynchronously.  In the final experiment, participants repeated the music experiment before playing a game in which tokens could be contributed. Those who had been in synchronous teams quickly bonded, and they were significantly more likely to donate more tokens and help one another during the game.

People who have bonded together often act in unison. Similarly, acting in unison helps people bond together.

10. Power posing

A study done at Columbia University discovered that when people are put into “power poses,” they experience “elevations in testosterone, decreases in cortisol, and increased feelings of power and tolerance for risk.”

So if you are sitting down, lean back, look up and interlock your fingers behind your head. If you are standing up, then place your feet flat on the floor and push your shoulders back and your chest forward.

Or, if you haven’t got time to strike a powerful pose, just make a fist. Thomas Schubert, a psychology professor at the University of Oslo, conducted a three-part study on power and bodily force. The first part of the study “tested whether making a fist increases accessibility of power-related words independent of gender.” Participants were asked to look at words on a screen, and press a button for blue or green, depending on the color of the word. After completing the experiment as normal, they were then told to hold their left hand in a “rock” or “scissor” position for the rest of the experiment. As expected, the volunteers’ bodies influenced their brains, and results “indicated that power-related words were more accessible for participants who made a fist than for participants who did not make a fist.”

This article was published in April 2015 and has been updated. Photo by Shutterstock.

Richard Wiseman is a psychologist and the author of The As If Principle. His research on the psychology of luck, change, perception and deception has been published in leading academic journals.