William James, self-help guru


Whenever I catch myself feeling tense I tell my body to relax. My body then breathes out, relaxes it’s muscles and is fine again – until the next time I notice it is tense.

This generally happens when there is no need to feel tense. The tenseness is all my body’s doing, not mine. It’s strange but it seems that my body’s physical state is what brings my feelings into existence, not the other way around as is commonly supposed. I feel tense, not because the situation is dangerous but because my body is tense. Why is my body tense? God knows. Habit, I suppose.

I think William James was the first person to suggest that we read our bodies for clues as to how we should be feeling. I came to this idea via Richard Wiseman’s book Rip it Up. In James’ opinion, you don’t see a lion, feel afraid and then start running. Instead you see the lion, start to run and once you notice what your body is doing you feel afraid. If William James is correct about the order in which these things happen, then the way forward for me, is clear: fix the state of the body and the mind will follow automatically.

So what does a body do when it is stressed? It breathes shallowly and quickly, its muscles tense up, it fidgets and it neither smiles nor laughs. Therefore, if body states are what counts, you should make your body breathe slowly and steadily, tell it to relax its muscles, stop fidgeting for Christ’s sake and smile (or laugh if you can manage it). After a while you should be feeling great, even if your wife has just died. Oh, and yawn. Apparently people rarely yawn when in threatening situations so yawning switches on your parasympathetic nervous system which is activated when all is well.

I’m not sure I completely believe this last bit and I can’t remember where I read it. I offer it merely as one more possible tool to try from your toolbox.

I have noticed that many Japanese girls smile almost constantly. At first I thought this was weird. What have they got to smile about? It must be tiring to always be putting on a smile. And yet the smile seemed effortless and compared to the Japanese boys and most westerners, Japanese girls do seem to be genuinely happier.

Of course, it could be that Japanese girls are smiling because they are happy people rather than them being happier due to their smiling. It seems to be a chicken and egg question.* However, researchers have found ways of teasing this particular chicken and egg apart. The experiment that best sticks in my mind is one involving a river valley with a low, stable bridge running across it and a higher swinging bridge far above. A youngish female market researcher (actually a scientist in disguise) asked hundreds of men crossing both bridges various unimportant questions. Later those men were asked by a different researcher if they would like to go on a date with the first female market researcher. A lot more men from the higher bridge than the lower bridge said they would. Why? The most plausible explanation is that their hearts were beating faster on account of the dangerously high swinging bridge they were standing on and they unconsciously associated the female researcher with this increased heart rate, something that also happens when you are physically attracted to someone. It seems the men were reading the state of their own bodies rather than the world outside. I have sometimes wondered if the men would have felt disappointed when they saw the researcher again on solid ground but this wasn’t part of the experiment.

Anyway, it seems to me that Japanese girls have discovered naturally what William James only posited as a theory, namely, that smiling makes you feel happier. The important thing is that it appears you can smile, breathe and relax your way to feeling good. So start grinning like a fool. People might want to punch you for looking so smug but you’ll be so happy you won’t care.

*If anyone ever asks you what came first, the chicken or the egg tell them it was the egg. Birds evolved from egg-laying reptiles so the ancestors of birds were laying eggs long before some reptiles evolved into birds. The chicken is a bird so the egg preceded the chicken. QED.


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