Act the Way You Want to Feel.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

One of the most surprising, and useful, things I’ve learned from my happiness project is my Third Commandment: Act the way I want to feel.

Although we presume that we act because of the way we feel, in fact, we often feel because of the way we act. More than a century ago, philosopher and psychologist William James described this phenomenon: “Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.” By acting as if you feel a certain way, you induce that emotion in yourself.

I use this strategy on myself. If I feel shy, I act friendly. If I feel irritated, I act lovingly. This is much harder to do than it sounds, but it’s uncannily effective.

Lately, I’ve been feeling low. I had various justifications for my blue mood, but just last night it occurred to me – maybe it’s due to my persistent case of viral conjunctivitis (which has been on my mind a lot).

As a consequence of the conjunctivitis, my eyes well up constantly, and I wipe tears off my face many times through the day. Maybe that’s contributing to my feelings of sadness.

It sounds far-fetched – that I feel sad because my eyes are watering as a result of eye inflammation – but I have indeed caught myself wondering, “Why am I feeling so emotional, why am I tearing up?” My mind was searching for an explanation that justified such a tearful response.

Actions, even involuntary actions, influence feelings. Studies show that an artificially induced smile can prompt happier emotions, and an experiment suggests that people who use Botox are less prone to anger, because they can’t make angry, frowning faces.

Usually, however, I invoke the act-the-way-I-want-to-feel principle not in the context of involuntary action, like tearful eyes, but in the context of self-regulation. When I’m feeling an unpleasant feeling, I counteract it by behaving the way I wish I felt — when I feel like yelling at my children, I make a joke; when I feel annoyed with a sales clerk, I start acting chatty.

It really works. When I can make myself do it.

How about you? Have you ever experienced a situation where a change in your actions has changed your emotions?

* Last weekend was the New York City marathon, which is a very big deal for everyone living in New York City. It creates a festive feeling, even when you’re not running, or watching the race, or even following it on TV. It’s a very happy event. I loved watching this time-lapse video on Gimundo of a single city block during the race.

* I send out short monthly newsletters that highlight the best of the previous month’s posts to about 28,000 subscribers. If you’d like to sign up, click here or email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (sorry about that weird format – trying to to thwart spammers.) Just write “newsletter” in the subject line. It’s free.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • ellavanw

    I hope your conjunctivitis clears up soon!

    I love the marathon. We live near the 59th St. bridge, and I love going over to the entrance to the Manhattan part of the race and cheering on the runners – this year my first grader was so enthused about it that we stayed there for over an hour. You’re right – it is such a happy event! The particular block of First Ave right by the bridge is a very happy one for a lot of the runners: it’s the halfway point, there’s a big water station there, the Manhattanites are back in their home borough, and there are a lot of spectators at that spot.

    Related to your post about traditions: after reading your posts on that subject, I have been making an effort. The other day I came home with Nutcracker tickets, for only the second year in a row. My first grader asked, “Oh, is this going to be a Mommy-daughter tradition?” A very happy moment.

  • Happens to me -all- the time. Doing something is the best way I’ve found to control my emotions. When I get irritated with my girlfriend, for example, I find that the best way to turn it around is by doing something loving.

    I don’t think emotions are as irrational as people tend to believe. I think they’re more like conditioned responses or “mental shortcuts” to certain situations … it may not be easy, but there’s always a way to turn negative emotions into positive ones.

    On a slightly related note – has anyone seen the study which suggested that while happy people were more creative, “grumpy” people tended to be better thinkers and decision makers?

  • It’s not only act how you want to feel, but also act how you’d like other people to feel (emotions are contagious, after all).

    I remember my father simply not getting involved with our childhood and teenage fights in the car, but acting as if nothing had happened. It’s very hard for an atmosphere to remain sour if somebody is still acting cheerful.

    • Great point, Niel. There may be situations where it isn’t always appropriate, though. For example, after a family tragedy, people may not be ready to accept cheerfulness right away. Or maybe they are, and we’re just afraid to try it.

    • gretchenrubin

      This works extremely well, but boy it’s tough! I respect a father who can
      ignore teenage fights to the degree that he cheers everyone up. It’s really
      something to strive for.

  • dara_chadwick

    I’ve seen this in my work with body image and I talk about the “act as if” concept in my body image book for mothers. If you “act as if” you feel confident, it has a huge impact on the way you present yourself to the world. That then affects the way others respond to you.

    I’m definitely a believer.

    I’m enjoying your blog, and can’t wait to read the book.

    • gretchenrubin

      Very true. Our self-conception has a huge impact on how other people see us.
      Thanks for your good wishes about the book!

  • This definitely falls under the effective but not always easy to do category! Talking about it helps reinforce it, so we can remember to choose the way we really want to be more often. Afterall, it is all about choice. Thank you for keeping the conversation going.

  • Becky

    This works for me. I find, like you, that if I start feeling irritated with someone, making a lighthearted joke does defuse my irritation. It also tends to make the other person warm up and get more “in sync” with me somehow.

    This does *not* work, however, as a license to be fake. If someone is irritating me and I make a “lighthearted” joke about them being irritating, that’s called being passive-agressive. It doesn’t defuse my irritation. And it hardly makes them warm up to me.

    Not that you suggested any such thing, Erin, in your post. I just think it’s a dangerous misinterpretation that some people could take away from the concept.

    • Becky

      Oh geez, I wrote your name wrong Gretchen! You look like my friend Erin. I am sorry! I really do know who you are.

      • gretchenrubin

        No problem!!

  • The most common experience that I had with using this technique is when I am feeling angry with somebody. Instead of yelling at them, I would act very friendly and hug the person and even apologize.

    That would just do wonders. Even though, just like you mentioned, it is really hard to force yourself to do that sometimes. But I did, it worked like magic.

    Sometime the solution to change your mood is to change the environment or people around you. Something in the environment might be triggering an emotional response and until we change that stimulus, the emotion might linger on.

    So if you can, try to do something physical, go for a walk, a run, go work out and you will see how your mood changes and improves dramatically.


  • heatherconroy

    Smile and you’ll feel better. Frown and you’ll feel worse. A series of widely reported studies found that smiling or frowning can alter blood flow to the brain as facial muscles relax or contract. This in turn affects the parts of the brain that regulate feelings, helping induce happy or sad emotional states. Hat tip and Vale Robert Zajonc see references here –

    • sunshinecook

      There’s also been a line of work in which participants are asked to hold pencils in their mouths in different ways (they think they are in a study to design writing tools for people who have lost both arms), some of which induce a smile. Consistently, smiling people have more positive emotional reactions to the next experimental task than their non-smiling counterparts.

      Here’s one study in this series:
      Soussignan, R. (2002). Duchenne smile, emotional experience, and autonomic reactivity: A test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Emotion, 2 (1), 52-74 DOI: 10.1037//1528-3542.2.1.52

      And a summary of the work on Cognitive Daily:

  • When I first started reading your blog, I learned about the idea of acting the way you want to feel. I started doing it and it really does work!!

  • I score pretty high on introversion and neuroticism (according to standard personality inventories). If I follow the natural tendencies that go with these traits, unhappiness is forever at my heels.

    But after learning more about personality and happiness ( I tried to act a little more outgoing, and to downplay my worries – and it did make it easier to to be happy.

    As you suggest, Gretchen, I now try to act the way I’d LIKE to feel. It doesn’t always work, but it works enough that I’ve made a commitment to live this way. 🙂

    PS I recently wrote a short post on a couple of relevant studies, including the Botox one you refer to:

    Instead of ‘I frown, therefore I’m cranky’, your conjunctivitis sounds like ‘I cry, therefore I’m sad’. Makes sense to me!

  • live aloha

    There once was a person whom I used to despise for the things she did to my friends and colleagues (claiming credit for work of others, hogging the limelight, making threatening phone calls to those who opposed her, destroying reputations of those she saw as threats).

    Because of our work, I ran into her all the time. Although I was never harmed by her directly, I perceived her as a threat because she ran a competing organization and I was never trusting of her actions in network settings. Anything she did, I would interpret only in the most negative light. But at the suggestion of a teacher/mentor, I started meditating and wishing her peace and happiness in her life. It was the exact opposite of what I felt like doing, but I did it.

    Amazing results – she starting fading into the background of my mind. After I stopped thinking about her, I had so much more energy to promote our own work and our organization grew and prospered. Her organization has since faded, but the organization I had worked to build is thriving.

  • Lib

    This reminds me of a project at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, on whether seeing tears on your face affects your mood: .

    • gretchenrubin

      Wow, this is interesting. I had never seen this.

  • Susie

    Sorry you’re feeling low, Grethen. This is a truly inspiring post and I will certainly being trying out the act-the-way-you-want-to-feel method. The one thing that particularly struck a chord with me the bit about yelling at the children. I’m sure if I start telling jokes whenever their behaviour is irritating me, I’ll be met with stunned silence and looks of disbelief. Better start widening my reportoire of child-friendly jokes!

  • Carol

    Yesterday I felt tired and droopy all day long, despite having had a good night’s sleep. Then I realized that I had used a new mascara the day before which had been hard to remove that night. My lashes were sticking together and I had to use more effort to keep my eyes open– thus, the perception of feeling tired all day! It wasn’t an “emotion”, as such, but it was another way that a physical sensation could be interpreted as something else. Weird.

  • sarahcheverton

    Another great post Gretchen, and really inspiring. I can’t wait to try being the way I wish I felt. I’ll let you know how it goes!

    I’ve started my own Happiness Project of sorts, over at my blog, The Daily. Many, many thanks to you for the inspiration 🙂

    • gretchenrubin

      Wonderful, can’t wait to check out your blog!

  • AnaMen

    First off, I agree that this works, but at the same time, I can’t help but wonder about the long-term consequences. If I am feeling legitimately angry about a situation — not because I am irritable or stressed for the moment, but because something truly angering has occurred — I may well be able to improve my mood for the moment by displaying a carefree attitude, but then what? Without my anger, I am no longer motivated to do anything about the situation at hand, possibly. Without receiving a negative reaction to egregious behavior, the perpetrator is confused and may reasonably assume that no harm has been done. And when I do feel anger, I will start to feel that it is somehow my fault for not being able to control it better — now someone’s egregious behavior turns into either me suppressing my anger or feeling that I ought to be able to. This contributed to me staying in an abusive situation for far longer than was necessary.
    Be careful about not respecting your negative emotions and allowing yourself to feel them. If something makes you angry, maybe it should, even your kids’ behavior, and maybe you should be able to directly communicate this, not make disingenuous jokes or remain inhumanly cheerful-seeming no matter what. Imagine the difference between these two scenarios:
    “You told me you had walked the dog, but that was a lie, and now he has peed on the floor. It really makes me angry that you lied about that,” versus “Hey, next time really walk the dog, don’t just say you did. But did you hear the one about what’s black and white and pink all over? An embarrassed zebra!”
    Of course if you’re just trying to convince your kid that you are crazy, by all means, go with the latter . . .

    • Atalanta

      I agree that we should look for the underlying cause of our negative emotions and try to fix them, but more often than not, anger doesn’t solve anything. It puts other people on the defensive and makes them less likely to be helpful (like in the dog-walking example, someone might reply to the angry exclamation by saying, “Hey, it’s not my fault! You should have done it!”).

      Instead, being calm and conciliatory will help others feel at ease, and make them more likely to admit their mistakes and fix them in the future.

      Not solving the problem can result in long-term unhappiness, but avoiding anger is more likely to solve the problem than blowing up.

      • AnaMen

        I just don’t see the options as “avoiding anger” and “blowing up.” It really is possible to feel angry and express anger without losing control. Stating that you are angry can be done calmly. Explaining that you are unhappy with someone because of their behavior is actually a step towards solving many problems, and sublimating your justified anger by disguising it as joy seems misguided.
        If my kid lies to me about walking the dog, then reacts to my calm statement that the lie has made me angry with “Hey, it’s not my fault! You should have done it!,” I would obviously point out that that makes no sense, since why would I do something she had already claimed to have done, and I would send her off to her room to consider why she felt lying, shirking chores, and treating me with such disrespect was appropriate. Making her feel at ease or behaving in a conciliatory manner would only confuse her as to what type of behavior is acceptable to me.

  • faith

    sometimes when im alone at home i try to keep a forced smile on my face for about 5 minutes. (mustve read it somewhere, i have no idea where) works wonders.
    definitely think the conjuctivitis and eye tearing can be effecting your mood. i would suggest trying fake smiling (when your alone) to combat it.
    good luck and thanks so much for your very helpful and thought provoking blog.

  • One of the chapters of my book is on the same principle:…But someone recently asked a question I’ve been waiting for for ten years. She said I advocate being yourself, being honest and authentic (which I do) but then I advocate acting in a way totally counter to your own feelings (which I also do). Don’t these two recommendations conflict?I answered her and then posted my answer because someone in the future may have the same question:

  • Guest

    I really like your blog.

  • Ontario

    Thank you so much for this reminder. My mother was a big proponent of this theory–and I think she was right about it. Now that she is no longer here to remind me of this, I often forget. And, you’re right: it’s hard. It’s very easy to wallow in one’s feelings of anger, irritation, annoyance and much harder to think about how one can ignore those feelings–or at least focus on some positive outcome from them.

  • Hope you’re feeling better by now. I enjoy your blog. Keep it up!

    I think that a lot of it is mental but I know that when you feel low, you can always force yourself to smile and sometimes, it does work where you start feeling better.

    But, like most people say, “it’s all in your head!” I believe it.

  • Mua-ha-ha-ha! I was just writing about this the other day on my blog. I also linked out to your post “Act the Way I Want to Feel”. Not-so-coincidental though 🙂

    What I experienced was I suffered a blister that made it difficult for me to smile. Ergo, I was in a bad mood all day. I was fully aware that there was nothing to be broody about, but constantly expressionless made me feel unlively throughout the day.

    Interesting thing is, as it was happening I remembered what you said about acting the way we want to feel. Thanks for the heads up, Gretchen 🙂

    Here’s the post I wrote, if you’re interested. Titled “When You Can’t Smile …”

  • Leanne

    I do think that this works in some things and some cases… but I have also seen that acting incongruently with feelings can be very problematic. I once dated someone who had lost their job, but didn’t want to tell anyone about it and I wasn’t to either. It was excruciating watching this person tell jokes and be the life of the party, and not get any support for what she was going through. She felt alone and isolated but was perceived as fun. Everyone said what a joy she must be to date, but it was horrid… it took so much energy to be so fun when she was afraid and tense inside, that when we were alone she was very hard to be around.

    Similarly I didn’t date someone more than once who seemed sad but I never saw her do anything but smile… it was like a mask. I asked why she acted so happy all the time, and she said “one has to”. I found out years later she had been going through a particularly rough time. I found the “acting happy” unnerving and impossible to be real around.

    And again, after a breakup, I was asked all the time why my ex kept making jokes, that turned out to be pointed, or hurtful or just not funny. Again, I think it was an attempt to change feelings by acting differently. But the real anger, sadness and hurt would seep out anyways or be present as an undercurrent.

    I do think that it can work for a lot of things like feeling unmotivated, depressed, feeling lonely or unproductive. If one acts motivated, engaged, friendly or productive, in fact one changes one’s interface with the world, and the results of these actions can change our feelings, which are then based on very real productivity and engagement in the world. Which reminds me, if I stop slouching right now, I’ll probably feel much more alert!

    • anamen

      I agree, Leanne.
      Personally I find the idea of everyone plastering on a big fake smile, in spite of obvious reasons to be sad, a bit chilling. Obviously we can’t be happy if we are wallowing in anger, depression, loneliness, or sadness all the time, but that doesn’t make these emotions so unacceptable that we must never permit ourselves to feel them. How may I offer comfort to my friends if they are never honest about their feelings of sadness? How will I know what I am doing that drives everyone crazy if no one ever even frowns about it? How will my kids figure that out the consequence of behaving hurtfully is the seemingly obvious fact that people will feel hurt if I am always pretending otherwise?
      I think there needs to be a moment when we ask ourselves WHY we are feeling the way we do before we immediately start trying to feel better.

      • Leanne

        I think also that we often give an outside “face” to the world, and sometimes when we neglect to, and express what is wrong or what we really feel, that others can reach out. If you show sadness when someone decides not to spend time with you, they might rethink their day, realising how much they mean to you. If you act happy and fine, because you wish to feel happy and fine, they may just continue to spend their time in front of the nintendo etc, or even think you must not care about them very much at all.

        Also, I have gotten great support from unexpected quarters when letting my feelings show instead of smiling and saying things are fine. When I discover that others will offer help, solace etc, then I no longer have to ACT to feel better, I DO feel better, and it is based on actual new ties to people around me, and not just feeling I am no longer alone, but knowing it through the real actions of others.

        Conversely, when I have asked others why I am not offered help, I often get the answer: well you seem to do fine by yourself, and not in need of help at all. Even asking for help, in a calm friendly way (vs crying and looking stressed out) can lead to being turned down, as friends and neighbors assess your outward appearance and actions and decide they themselves, or others who DO look more needy, will get their time and a hand.

        Indeed, I feel I am too emotional, and have been called an open book, but often I have received admiration from unexpected places, when I am praised for just that: being able to be open, vulnerable, real.

        But I do not reject this premise entirely. Indeed I am often down, feeling either sad or depressed, and acting differently will indeed make me feel much much better.

        • I think acting how you want to feel, like many other things, is only good if used judiciously. There are times when it’s helpful (such as when you yourself are the biggest obstacle to being happy), and times when it’s not so helpful (when you put on a mask to quash your emotions).

          Knowing the difference isn’t always easy though…

          • Zupamum

            Well stated!

  • @live aloha,your comment is simply beautiful…….I shall use this to resolve my own issues with people I find difficult to deal with

    Thats a great article Gretchen.I too have noticed this happens……and you know….at times when I find it really difficult to “act the way I want to feel”….I found that not thinking helps.If I just stop thinking about it,actually it is better if you can just relax and kind of stop thinking about anything at all for a while,I can get to the way i want feel much faster….

  • I wonder is this is one of those things (like positive self-talk) that just isn’t compatible with depression? I work in customer service, and behave in a friendly, cheerful manner all day, and when I get home, I certainly don’t feel better — most often, I feel grumbly and occasionally like picking a fight. Granted, I typically feel OK *at* work, but then it’s like crashing off a sugar high — the pendulem swings back, if you don’t mind a mixed metaphor.

    • Zupamum

      I feel the same way! I work in a Deli Dept. and have to be upbeat and smiley all day, when I end my shift, I’m still miserable in my job!

  • I had this very conversation today with a friend of mine, who asked me the question that I would absolutely hate for anyone to ask me, maybe about 6 months ago.
    She asked me about my self harming, and now, after having stopped for a few months now it was okay to answer. I smiled, and I answered eloquently–I actually made the persons who asked understand instead of jump to accusations–mostly because my response wasn’t defensive, and so theirs didn’t have to be either.

    Out of the conversation, though, I got a whole lot more. Because I opened up so much, the girl who asked felt comfortable in opening up to me as well, and out of the conversation we came up with a point that we both agreed on, as it related to our own personal circumstances: “Your state of mind determines your state of reality”

    I decided then that, that would be my life’s mantra–because it’s that type of thinking that has gotten me where I am today, even though I have a good way to go in my pursuit of happiness, with this mantra, I am already halfway there =]

    Your post was inspiring–I could truly, truly relate.

  • halseytailor

    I took an acting class to learn how to laugh more spontaneously. And it is true as the cognitive psychologists say, that if you say it or act it, eventually your thinking and actions follow more genuinely. For example, if you give false compliments to your husband every day, “you look so good today” even though you don’t originally feel that is true, over time you do come to feel it more genuinely.

    • gretchenrubin

      It never ceases to amaze me how effective this is! You start out fake, but
      then it turns sincere.

  • halseytailor

    I took an acting class to learn how to laugh more spontaneously and it worked. It’s as the cognitive psychologists say, if you do it or say it, you eventually come to believe it. Such as giving a false compliment to someone, if you say it often enough, you do come to believe it.

  • gabriel27

    There have been some great studies done about this very phenomenon. They tested the emotional reactions of people who had been exercising – those who had a vigorous work out and, therefore, had a heavily beating heart, would rate a woman’s face as more attractive than if their heart rate were normal (the physiological state of general arousal, due to the exercise, was attributed to the extra “hotness” of the woman). Similarly, they were likely to be much more angry at an insult (attributing the physiological arousal to the fight response).

    We often notice a bodily state and then try to figure out why our body would be that way. Whatever is the most reasonable at the time is what we then feel. The mind is a crazy thing!

  • This is often true, but not always. It’s interesting how much a behaviour can influence how you are feeling. Psychologists have done research on this. If you hold a pencil between your teeth while doing something you will enjoy it more than if you did not hold a pencil between your teeth = because holding a pencil between your teeth forces your mouth into a smile, and when you are smiling you subconsciously tend to assume you must be happy. Psychologists also did research by getting an attractive women to give her phone number to random guys at a waterfall. When she approached men on a scary-looking hanging bridge, they tended to give her a call more frequently than men she approached in a ‘safer’ place (on the footpath). The men on the bridge felt the physical sensation of fear, but because there was an attractive women there, assumed that their bodily reaction was caused by sexual excitement not fear. [I don’t know what that second study has to do with any of this, it seemed connected to the topic when I started writing about it…]

    One problem I have with the assertion that we FEEL because of the way we ACT is that it isn’t entirely that simple, and you are in danger of guilt-blaming people for feeling a certain way. Sometimes acting a certain way won’t make you feel any different. Getting out of bed in the morning is a good thing to do if you feel depressed, because it might help, but it is certainly not guaranteed to help. The danger is you are telling shy/anxious/distrustful people that it is their fault they feel that way. “If only you did X behaviour” you would no longer feel that way. It is telling them their feelings are not really legitimate – or telling them they feel that way because they WANT to feel that way.

    • This is definitely something to think about. I am trying to act differently to how I feel sometimes, maybe doing that can help me. I know going for a run when I feel down helps, but that’s because it causes endorphin to be released in my body.

  • Great article…I talk about “act how you want to feel and you will feel the way you act” in my book, as well…I can’t wait to read your new book! Book swap?!?

  • saranaut

    A psychologist once told me that, just as you can “think yourself into” a bad mood (where depressed thoughts eventually present as physical symptoms), the opposite is also true: you can start a good feeling in your body, which can then manifest physically. For example, if you smile even though you feel low, your brain gets signals from the muscles involved in smiling that make it the transmit the “feel-good chemicals” that smiling usually elicits. Obviously, that’s an extremely simplified description, but it seems a real phenomenon as evidenced by all posts here. 🙂

  • Pilar

    When I feel sad or when I am dealing with hardships, the best thing that I can do for myself, is to put on my walking shoes and take a long hard walk-run. Walking can do for me what drugs do for other people. As I walk I can sometimes loose myself on the beauty of nature. Is hard to feel bad when I look all around and I listen to the outdoors songs. When I get home, all tires, sweaty and energized, things don’t look or feel quite so bad.

  • i feel like a thought~do of river island campsites for sensitive plant and animal species

  • Keyspoet

    I’ve always tended to be a friendly person, but when I was seventeen I read an article that said that the simple act of smiling releases endorphins, literally making us feel happier.  Works for me.  

    I have found through the years that by smiling, even when things aren’t going well, not only do I feel better, but I am in a better frame of mind to come up with creative solutions, leading to happier outcomes overall.

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