Eleven people mill around a light-filled room inside an Arvada church, a window framing a picture-perfect view of the Rockies. They’re a diverse group, with only one apparent trait they might have in common: They all seem slightly off their rockers. There’s Steve, an older gentleman who arrived with his yoga mat, picking grapes from a vine that isn’t there. Across the room, Lyliana, a younger woman with a throaty and contagious laugh, is popping non-existent pills. And Linda, in a wheelchair wearing a pair of whimsically decorated Crocs, is smiting invisible foes with invisible swords. Every few seconds they all erupt into hysterical laughter.
But they haven’t lost touch with reality. They’re here for something called laughter yoga, an activity that’s part yoga, part improvisation and, yes, part laughter. The idea is to laugh for no reason, to “fake it” until it becomes real. It can push even the most extroverted people out of their comfort zones. So, why do it? Most of them want to be happier, even if only for a little while.
What is happiness?
The pursuit of happiness is booming these days. Last year, the University of California at Berkeley offered a free online “Science of Happiness” course — more than 50,000 people registered. Huge companies, such as Google and Zappos, are appointing CHOs: chief happiness officers. Countless apps like Happify and Headspace claim to help people achieve greater happiness with the swipe of a finger.
It makes sense. Research shows that happier people make better lifestyle choices, translating into a stronger immune system, reduced risk of disease and longer life.
But despite strong incentive, happiness remains elusive to some — both in terms of defining and experiencing it. “The one thing we think we know for sure is that people aren’t very good at predicting what will make them happy,” says Kevin Masters, professor and director of the University of Colorado at Denver’s clinical health psychology program and editor-in-chief of Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
A lot of us assume that money or stuff will make us happy. We think: “If I only had the new iPhone … ” But for most people, material things won’t create happiness because of “hedonic adaptation,” says Dana Steidtmann, clinical psychologist at the University of Colorado’s Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Colorado Depression Center. “It’s the idea that over time we readjust to the circumstances of things we buy. We might experience a high when we get it. Then we get used to it and are back where we were before.”
It’s a trap that Denver-area life coach Sarah Shin fell into. Today she exudes positivity and helps her clients live fuller, happier lives. But growing up, Shin’s idea of happiness was different. “I used to think that if I had a certain amount of money or a particular job or owned a house, I would be happy.” When that didn’t work, and those tactics landed her thousands of dollars in debt, she thought paying the debt off would make her happy. “On the day that I made my last payment, I didn’t feel any differently at all.” Her conclusion? “I realized that I enjoyed the experience of paying it off. That was way more gratifying to me than the end result.”
Experiences, as opposed to things, aren’t as prone to hedonic adaptation, Steidtmann says. But over time, even the memories of that amazing vacation start to fade, and we’re pretty much back to square one. So then what? There are ways to boost happiness, such as being grateful and socializing (see sidebar), which is part of the point of the laughter yoga group.
The Path to Happiness
So many of us think of happiness as a personality trait — and to some extent it is, the experts say. But it’s also a skill that can be learned, says Dana Steidtmann, a clinical psychologist with the University of Colorado Denver. She and CU Psychology Professor Kevin Masters say steps to happiness can include:
Being grateful. Keep a gratitude journal, or set time aside to talk with family about the things you feel appreciative of each day. “There is pretty good evidence that it’s helpful to take some time, on a regular basis, to reflect on the things we’re grateful for,” Steidtmann says.
Having purpose. Most happy people report a sense of purpose. It’s about “connecting to something that has meaning or contribution,” Steidtmann says. People can find purpose through careers, volunteering, family, faith communities, and other relationships. The idea is to be at the right level of challenge, Masters says. “If work is too challenging, it’s frustrating. If it’s not challenging enough, you don’t feel good about yourself.” Psychologists call that “sweet spot, or finding the optimal challenge,” flow.
Being giving. Volunteer. Do something nice for a friend. Give a gift. “There is a lot of good evidence around the positive experience of giving back,” Steidtmann says, adding that people often don’t realize how good giving will make them feel. Masters stresses that this doesn’t mean people need to be in the soup kitchen every day. They can be small gestures, he says, describing how he recently let people into his lane during his daily commute. “It made me feel so much better!” he says, laughing. “It’s silly, right? But those are the ways you end up feeling a bit better. I think it’s almost always the small things.”
Being social. Strong connections with other people help make us happier. “That’s been shown to be pretty true across races, genders, cultures, countries, etc.,” Masters says. The number of friends doesn’t need to be large, he says. “But the connection needs to be solid.”
Anyone can find it with work
Linda Davis, one of the yoga group members, was diagnosed with ALS in 2013. Since then, the disease has robbed the 54-year-old of her mobility, some communication skills and more. But ALS didn’t steal her ability to laugh and connect with people, even strangers.
After her diagnosis, Davis and her 26-year-old daughter, Kristina, started seeing acupuncturist Lisa Lowe of Arvada in an effort to slow the disease’s progression. During one of their sessions, Lowe suggested the two of them join her laughter yoga group. “It took one class for us to become hooked,” Kristina says. “It’s been a huge help in coping with my mom’s diagnosis. It allows the two of us to look at each other when something happens and just start laughing. It helps so much with keeping a positive attitude.”
In the 1978 groundbreaking study that led to the term hedonic adaptation, it was also noted that there’s a flip-side to theory. Researchers interviewed 22 lottery winners and 29 paraplegics to gauge their happiness levels in relation to their situations. While the paralyzed group experienced an initial dip in happiness, a couple of years later, both groups reported no significant difference in their happiness levels since winning the money or becoming paralyzed.
Shin’s approach echoes that. “Happiness isn’t this thing outside of me that I achieve and then tell myself: Now I’m happy. It is a continual process, a deepening awareness of everything that’s going on in my life, both good and bad, and being OK with it all no matter how it looks.”
So can anyone be happy? Probably not; at least not all the time, Steidtmann says. “It’s OK and normal not to be happy some of the time,” she says. “Negative emotions ̶ such as sadness, fear and worry — those have a role, too.” She stresses that anyone working toward a happier life keep realistic expectations. “Like anything, these strategies to boost happiness are new habits you’re creating. It absolutely is effort. They take work. But it can work over time.”
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