Tal Shafir, a lecturer at Graduate School of Creative Arts Therapies, discusses: How Your Body Affects Your Happiness at TEDxJaffa 2013 Conference (Transcript)
Tal Shafir – Lecturer, Graduate School of Creative Arts Therapies
Do you know that you can affect your mood simply by holding and moving your body in a certain way? And I’m not talking about exercising to enhance your mood.
I’m talking about doing movements that are associated with a certain emotion in order to enhance that specific emotion. You can make yourself feel better just by incorporating into your everyday movements, happy movements, and avoiding postures and movements that are associated with negative feelings. I know that from my research, but it all started as a personal experience.
When I was young, I loved dancing. It always made me feel good and I decided I was going to be a dance teacher. While I was studying to become a dance teacher, we had a workshop with a dance movement therapist that came from the United States. And during that workshop, the movement that I did following her instructions, came up from within me in a process similar to free association which elicited a stream of emotions that brought up thoughts which eventually led to insights. This was the first time I realized how powerful and strong can the effect of movement be on our emotions. And following this experience which was really deep and meaningful, I decided to be become a dance movement therapist.
After several years of doing therapy, I moved into academia and research, and then with all the work and family and studying, and all these things that you have to deal with, you know how it is — I just stopped dancing.
Now fast forward to 10 years later, when I went through a really difficult time in my personal life. Just as this period started, I happened to attend a dancing in the street event, where I saw people dance swing in the street. And I fell in love with swing music and the joy of the dance and it inspired me, and I started to dance swing regularly. And again, the movement and the dance just made me feel better.
Each time I danced, I felt happier, I felt energized and motivated and these effects lasted not only while I was dancing, but for a few hours after each time I danced. The dancing was really what helped me keep up my mood elevated during that difficult period.
And once I started dancing, it also reminded me of my dance movement therapy background, and at home I would also dance and elicit and process through movements, all the difficulties, and the feelings that I had in relation to the difficulties. The effect of the dancing on my mood and emotions during that period — both the social dancing, swing dancing, and the dancing at home — was so incredible that it made me want to research that in order to understand how does it happen. How come our movements have such a big effect on our emotions and feelings? What is the underlying brain process behind that effect? And how can we use this phenomenon to create simple motor intervention to help people with psychological and psychiatric problems?
But in order to research these questions, one has to understand what are emotions? Do you know what are emotions and feelings? Our body constantly sends signals from the body to the brain about its current condition. And whenever our life is in danger, these signals create in the brain a drive to act, to do something that will preserve our life. And these signals which are presented in the brain in the form of chemical and electrical signals, these are actually our unconscious emotions which are then translated into the conscious feelings. So for example, our body constantly sends signals to the brain about our blood sugar level. And whenever the brain identifies that the sugar level goes down too much, it creates a drive to act to go and eat something so that the sugar level will go up again. And this translates into the feeling of hunger which makes us go and eat.
Another example is if you see something threatening. Imagine that you’re hiking in Alaska, enjoying the view, the wilderness, the quietness, and suddenly you see a huge grizzly bear ahead of you. That’s what happened to me a few years ago. Well, the bear wasn’t really in front of me, it was running parallel to the path where I was hiking, about 500 meters away, and luckily the wind was blowing in such a direction that the bear didn’t smell me. But during the first few seconds that I spotted that bear, and until I realized that I was safe, my heart rate went up like crazy, my eyes and pupils got enlarged, and all the blood went into my muscles which became ready to fight, flight, or freeze.
So all these signals coming from the body to my brain, according to Darwin, James and others, all these signals made me feel frightened. It was not that was I afraid and as a result my heart rate went up, but because my heart rate went up, I felt fear. So it is the feedback that comes from your body to your brain that determines your feelings. And you’ve all experienced that.