I popped into a coffee shop the other day in Melbourne, as you do, for a well-earned decaf cappuccino. Yes, that's right, decaf, wimp that I have become in old age. There was a time when this body could cope with all manner of toxic substances, but sadly no longer. So decaf it was and I was tempted to risk a double shot, so there!
The young woman behind the counter gave me a huge smile and asked the mandatory, "How are you?" I gave my usual answer of, "Magnificent!" And said with feeling. "And how about you?" I asked. "Stupendous," came the reply and we just couldn't resist a spontaneous high five over the till, laughing delightedly. About half a dozen people in the queue and some others waiting for their coffee hit smiled and one even managed a laugh, which was a bonus for her day. Others, sitting at tables, weren't sure what the ruckus was all about but looked up and most smiled for no other reason than smiling is highly infectious: damn dangerous if you ask me. It was a great moment and the afterglow lasted for ages. And all it cost was a cup of coffee that I was going to buy anyway.
I was playing golf a few weeks ago on a strange course and with strangers. Sadly my ball found its way into a bunker and I climbed in with my sand wedge to hack it out. Mostly I like to take in a bucket and spade as well but, as I said, I was with people I had not met before and didn't want to put them off. I played my shot and even managed to get it onto the green with the first blow. One of my new friends picked up the rake and raked the bunker as I climbed out. This is not normal behaviour in a sport where players are focused primarily on their own game. I protested and went to take the rake but he waved me away and said that all was well. As I walked to my ball he added, "It costs me nothing, nothing at all."
And there it is. It costs absolutely nothing except a bit of effort to be happy, to brighten up someone's day, to undertake an act of kindness, to take someone by surprise in a delightful way. There is some evidence that laughter, delight, and a kind hand releases chemicals in the body that are good for us, strengthen our immune system and lift us up emotionally. Alternatively, grumpiness, being absorbed in our gloom and being resentful or angry, for example, do the opposite and make us feel even worse and are bad for our body as well as our mind.
What is even more fascinating is that the act of being cheerful has an uplifting effect. So, if we are not feeling so great, are grumpy or otherwise out of sorts, role playing or acting happy will make us feel better. Obviously it takes a lot more effort when all you want to do is let the world know how bad life is for you, than if you are cheerful to start with. But, trust me, it's worth it. I know it works because I've done it often myself and have taught lots of others to fake it, with great effects. The psychological research on the topic shows that it works too.
Simple really: do nice things and you feel good, and so does the person you've been nice to. I'm sure my gran knew this quite well, and she didn't have a psychology degree: just a PhD in life and profound common sense.
Dr Stewart Hase is an Adjunct Fellow with Southern Cross University and a consultant psychologist.
You can visit his blog at stewarthase.blogspot.com
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