Here is the full text of psychologist Emma Seppälä’s talk titled “Breathing Happiness” at TEDxSacramento conference.
Emma Seppälä – Author of The Happiness Track
As a graduate student at Stanford University, and also now a psychologist and research scientist, I’ve been continuously amazed by the beauty of the campus, the sun that bathes the campus every day, and the amazing scholars that surround us.
However, I’ve also been dismayed by another fact: I often see that the students are miserable, they’re anxious; there’s so much stress.
My first year as a graduate student there… there were three suicides on the campus. So in response to this, my colleague, Carole Pertofsky, Head of Health Promotion, and I started a Science of Happiness class with the hopes of increasing well-being in some way.
One day, one of the students came up after class to Carole and said, “I have to drop out. This class goes against everything I’ve ever learned.”
Carole asked, “What do you mean?”
The student said, “My parents told me I needed to be very successful. And when I asked them, ‘How do I become very successful?’ they said, ‘You must work very, very hard.'”
When the student went back to them and said, “How do I know when I’m working hard enough?” her parents said, “When you’re suffering.”
It can seem very shocking, and yet we’ve all bought into this misconception to a certain degree. There’s a misconception out there that in order to be successful we have to sacrifice or at least postpone our happiness.
In particular, there’s this idea that you cannot have success without stress, and I think you’d probably agree with me that that idea is out there.
My field of research is the science of happiness, of well-being, of fulfillment, and also of resilience. The more I dove into the literature, the more I saw that we have it all wrong.
While we certainly cannot control the amount of stress that’s coming our way, we can’t control the pressure that’s coming our way, whether it’s professional or whether it’s personal, we will all face life stressors. We all have, and we will continue to do so. There’s not much we can do about that.
However, there’s one thing we can control, and that is the state of our mind. I’ve worked with arguably the most stressed individuals in our society — veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan with trauma. These young men and women, as you most probably have heard about, live in a constant state of fight-or-flight. It’s as if that stress response hasn’t been turned off.
As a consequence, they cannot sleep. They have nightmares if they actually do manage to get a wink. During the day they have flashbacks. They could be in their car driving on the highway and have a flashback of being back in combat. They have difficulties in their relationships with other people, and they have a hard time holding onto a job, let alone going to school.
One thing that we’re seeing in the literature is that therapy and the pharmaceutical interventions being offered to them in many cases do not work, and in many cases are not acceptable to the veterans who don’t like the side effects or who don’t like the treatments.
So what we wanted to do was do something completely new, and that’s how we fit into this TEDx theme of “What’s New,” yet it’s also very ancient.
In fact, it’s something you’re doing right now: breathing.
Breathing is the only autonomic function that you actually have a say over. It’s harder to control — for example, your heart rate — but your breathing is something you can control at your own volition, if you like.
When you inhale, your heart rate increases, and when you exhale, it decreases. When you inhale, you feel energized, and when you exhale, you relax.
If you deepen your breath, if you slow your breath, and in particular, if you lengthen your exhales, your heart rate decreases, your blood pressure decreases, and you’re tapping into your parasympathetic nervous system, the opposite of fight-or-flight: the rest-and-digest nervous system, calming your whole system.
Another really interesting fact about the breath is how closely linked it is with our emotions. You’ve probably noticed on days you feel very anxious, your breath might be very short and shallow; the same happens when you’re very angry.
If you look at someone who’s very happy, like little kids running in the sprinkler, you can just see how deeply they’re breathing, you can practically see their abdomen moving.
Other examples are sobbing and laughing. Those are some very obvious ways in which our breath is linked in to our emotions. A psychologist named Pierfilippo [De Sanctis] ran a very interesting study. To look at this phenomenon, he invited participants into the lab, and he asked them to evoke certain emotions within themselves… emotions like happiness, sadness, and so forth.
He looked at how deeply they breathed, he looked at the length of their breath to determine whether there was a certain pattern of breathing that corresponded to the emotion.
Lo and behold, he found that there was a very unique footprint to each one of the emotions in terms of breathing pattern. The more interesting part of the study, however, was the second part, in which he invited completely different people into the lab, and he only gave them the instruction to do the breathing that corresponded to the emotion.
The breathing patterns he had noticed in the first part of the study, he instructed the participants to do. And after that, he asked them, “How do you feel?” You can probably imagine what he found.
He found that they started to feel the emotions that corresponded to the breathing pattern. This is actually revolutionary. We’ve all had intense emotions, and we all know how very challenging it is to talk ourselves out of those emotions.
You can say, “Relax, relax,” or “Don’t be so mad; calm down.” It’s very challenging when the emotion is intense. It’s even worse when someone else comes up to you and they think they’re being helpful by telling you to calm down.
We invited veterans into the lab, and half of them participated in a week-long breathing program called Sudarshan Kriya, or SKY Meditation for short. This week-long program — they came in a couple of hours a day, and they learned a series of breathing techniques, and by the end of that week, their anxiety levels had dropped to subclinical levels.
They were able to sleep again. After the week was over we wanted to see, “How long does this effect last?”
So we, again, tested them a month later. We found that the benefits had lasted, they were still sleeping. They were still feeling better. Again, we tested them one year later, and the benefits also had lasted, suggesting permanent improvement.
In fact, there’s a documentary film that was made about the study called “Free the Mind” where you can follow the lives of two of the veterans, and the transformations that happen in their lives.
One of them said, “Thank you for giving me my life back.” He’s now gone on to become an instructor and is teaching other veterans.