As If

I heard about something called laughter yoga on a podcast the other day. Here’s how Wikipedia describes the practice:

Laughter yoga (Hasyayoga) is a practice involving prolonged voluntary laughter. Laughter yoga is based on the belief that voluntary laughter provides the same physiological and psychological benefits as spontaneous laughter. Laughter yoga is done in groups, with eye contact, jokes and playfulness between participants.

Sounds kooky, right? And yet, I think it probably works. Here’s why.

We tend to believe that our feelings motivate our behavior. We feel confident and then we do confident things, for example. What the research demonstrates, however, is that it also works the other way around: our behavior influences our feelings. If we do confident things, we tend to feel more confident as a result.

When I teach students how to give presentations, for example, I know they’re nervous. Some of them are downright petrified. I’m sure they’re waiting for me to give them some kind of anxiety-management techniques like positive thinking. I don’t, for the very good reason that psyching yourself up rarely works. If people were good at directly controlling their emotions, they wouldn’t be nervous to begin with.

Instead, I show them how to stand, how to hold their hands, and how to project their voices. By carrying out confident behaviors, they tend to develop more confident attitudes. This isn’t “fake it ’til you make it” because they’re not faking anything. They’re just doing. (And even if the confident feelings don’t arise, at least they’re still doing public speaking effectively.)

This is not new stuff. William James wrote about it back in 1890:

If you want a quality, act as if you already have it.

This idea has been tested a lot in the past 40 years, and researchers have found that James was (mostly) right. It’s not 100% effective 100% of the time, but it’s moderately helpful more often than not.

Over the past few years, I’ve started kicking off my leadership development programs with improv exercises facilitated by Justin Zell of Steel City Improv. I think improv has a lot of benefits, but one of the most important is based on the “as if” principle. Leadership development works best when a group bonds and trusts each other. To get the most out of the program, I need to speed up this process of group bonding. Improv does the trick because it gets participants to carry out the behavior of people who trust each other and aren’t afraid of being vulnerable with each other, and the attitude quickly follows suit.

Most people end up loving the improv stuff, but some people never do. That’s okay. Whether you enjoy it or not, it works. Within just a few hours, a bunch of 30 strangers becomes a group and their level of trust and sharing goes way up. (Even better, it works even with people from very different cultures.)

A lot more research needs to be done on laughter yoga, but I’m betting that it’s at least moderately helpful. It’s just an extension of the “as if” principle.