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.
The fact that we can use the breath to impact the state of our mind means we have a tool at all times, no matter what we’re facing… to calm ourselves down, we just need to tap into it.
Some of you may have stressful commutes. You may not like being in the car, it raises that anxiety or sometimes anger for people. Jake was on probably one of the most stressful commutes that you can ever imagine. He was the Marine Corps officer in charge of the last vehicle on a convoy in Afghanistan.
All the other cars had passed safely ahead of him. Yet his vehicle, unfortunately, drove over an IED — an Improvised Explosive Device. There was a very large bang. When the dust had settled, he looked down, and he saw that his legs were fractured below the knee.
In that moment, he remembered a breathing technique that he had learned in a book called “On Combat” by Lieutenant Colonel Grossman for young officers. It shared a breathing technique whereby you breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of four, out for a count of four, hold for a count of four, like a square breath.
In that moment, he remembered it, and he started to breathe in this way. Thanks to that, he had the presence of mind to check in on his men, make sure they were all OK. He had the presence of mind to give orders to call for help. He had the presence of mind to tourniquet his own legs, to prop them up, and only then, when he had done his duty, when he had taken care of everything, he lay back, and that’s when he passed out.
Later, he found out that had he not had that presence of mind, he would have fallen into a coma, or he would have bled to death. Jake attended my wedding, he’s a friend. He’s wearing prosthetics, and it hurts him a lot to stand. Yet, at my wedding I saw him dance.
If Jake can have the presence of mind, thanks to the breath, so can we. It’s one of the greatest secrets out there, and I really hope you take it home with you, because I really think it’s an idea worth sharing.
Download This Transcript as PDF here: Breathing Happiness_ Emma Seppälä at TEDxSacramento (Transcript)
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