ELIANNA LEV Writer
THE GIG Lev, who splits her time between Toronto and Vancouver, writes about finding joy in life simply by smiling. creati ve juices “My sources of inspiration include my dog Dutchie’s unflinching enthusiasm, Anaïs Nin’s diaries and the work and practice of Toronto artist Sandy Plotnikoff.”
I’m bouncing around the light-filled atrium of the Art Gallery of Ontario like a toddler after a chocolatechip-cookie binge. Then, smiling ear to ear, I give a roomful of strangers two thumbs up à la photographer Terry Richardson. Finally, I emit a deep-throated laugh that I hope sounds something close to Santa Claus’ merry giggle (and not a deranged elf). This is laughter yoga—and I don’t belong here.
While my default setting may be more Eeyore than Tigger, I signed up for the class as part of an ongoing quest to find more joy in every day. It’s a promise I made to myself when I went off antidepressants in August 2014 with the support of my doctor. My time on medication was invaluable—not only did I feel less trapped in my head but I also learned the importance of routine, exercise and meditation. But I still wasn’t any happier. The next step seemed clear: I needed to teach myself to truly enjoy life instead of just existing.
Even world-weary misanthropes need baby steps. So first up was smiling. Regularly. I’d watched the Hidden Power of Smiling TED Talk, which revealed how frequent grinning has been linked to longer life, reduced stress and a healthier immune system. I forced my lips to curl upward while walking my dog, and I beamed through dinner with my family even when the topic turned to the grim state of international politics.
Often, I felt like a fraud. Sure, my lips were lifted, but internally I felt like a grimacing emoji or a twisted Disney villain. And that’s okay, according to experts. In 2012, University of Kansas researchers found that just mimicking the action of a smile can make you feel less stressed. Lisa Cypers Kamen, an L.A.-based applied positive psychology coach, uses the method with her patients. During treatment, she asks them to put a pen in their mouth to physically force a grin. “We used to believe that if we think happy thoughts, we’re going to be happier— but emotions follow our actions,” says Kamen. Laughter has the same benefits and will release happiness-making endorphins regardless of whether your mirth is courtesy of a killer Amy Schumer sketch or a forced chuckle at your boss’ lame joke.
Cue the laughter yoga class and me practising my ho ho hos. While at first this public outburst made me want to turtle, I was soon able to tap into a unique joy just for the sake of it—joy I hadn’t felt since I was a child. And that’s the point. “Adults laugh with their minds,” my laugh instructor Sue Bhanot told me. “When someone tells a joke, you process it quickly and then you decide if you’re going to laugh or not. Children laugh with their bodies. We forget how to do that as we get older.” When you do laugh like that, “you produce serotonin, which will give you a happy boost,” adds Thomas Flindt, a laughter guru and the author of Happy Lemons.
After a couple of months, I can both see and feel a difference. These days, my resting face is more smiley than sourpuss, and every time I leave the house, I shoot myself a grin in the mirror. It instantly gives me a noncaffeinated jolt of positivity. I’ve also found myself connecting with strangers. Most of the time they look at me with confusion, but every so often, I get a warm smile back. While all this happiness homework hasn’t catapulted my spirit to Oprah levels of joy, I do feel like I’ve come a long way from slogging through the days just to get them done. It’s the difference between showing up and showing up with a purpose. Life feels lighter, and so does the future.
Find out more with The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Successby Emma Seppälä.