How to Feel Happier in Two Minutes–Pencil Not Included

Seven years ago, I clocked out of the burn unit for the last time and said goodbye to IVs, night shifts, and skin grafts. Let’s just say I was glad to leave the hospital. But my time on the step-down unit did teach me a couple valuable lessons, like how to turn a cranky moment towards happiness.

When people learn that I worked as a burn nurse they often blink and whisper, “That must’ve been so hard.” Working on a burn unit was hard, but not for the reason people think. My coworkers and I walked onto the job each day expecting the worst, which protected us against emotional paralysis and allowed us to focus on helping our patients—loading their IVs with Dilaudid, washing their burns, and slathering them with Silvadene. Burn care wasn’t the hardest part, at least for me; night shifts were.

A pep in my step

Unless you’ve stared 4 a.m. in the face, contacts blurring from dryness, you’ve never met the pit of night. Usually, by 2:30 a.m. my coworkers and I stopped talking. During the eternal inertia that stretched from then until dawn, I would agonize over whether another cup of coffee was worth the hole it would burn in my stomach.

One night as I clawed my way toward morning, a patient’s call light turned on. I took a quick trip through Kubler-Ross’s stages of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression before accepting the inevitable need to move. I peeled my scrubs off the chair and dragged my legs down the hall.

As I inched along, a thought burrowed its way to the surface of my brain. If I acted energetic—maybe by putting a pep in my step—would I feel more awake? It seemed idiotic. But, then again, I was desperate.

I forced my shuffle into a walk. Then a fast walk, and then a bounce. Then, another and another.

My vision focused, my head cleared, and my mood lifted—just a little.

Leveraging our bodies

Recently, I watched a TED talk by Amy Cuddy, social psychologist, that corroborates what I experienced that night on the burn unit. Cuddy asked study participants to power-pose for two minutes—to assume a body language typical of CEOs, olympic athletes, or Captain America. She found that people who mimicked confidence, felt and acted more self-assured.

Often our emotions can feel like tyrants, ransacking our happiness while we huddle in the corner, but Cuddy’s research suggests that we can leverage our bodies to fight back. Multiple factors affect how we feel on a given day—low serotonin levels, an argument with a friend, or skipping lunch. Hangry, anyone? But according to Cuddy’s research, what we do with our bodies matters, too.

So, do you want to feel…

  • More happy? Try holding a pencil between your teeth for two minutes (a.k.a forced smiling).
  • Less emotionally chaotic? Wash the dishes and put away the laundry.
  • More energetic? Run, skip, or twirl.
  • Less lonely? Head to Starbucks and smile at the wrinkled man in the corner.
  • More thankful? Skip venting and list the highlights of your day.

Perhaps if we start acting how we want to feel our emotions will head that direction, too.