Posture and Happiness


How many of us resemble this throughout most of our day?

Today I want to talk about posture and happiness. It is no stretch to say that the way we carry or hold ourselves has a profound impact on our mental, physical, emotional, and social health This was a subject I have encountered several times both as a research assistant at the Biodynamics and Human Performance Center at my University, as well as during a workplace wellness seminar a colleague/friend and I gave at a local office and I wanted to share it here with you all today. I want you to stop and think about how you are reading this right now. My guess is that you are slouched down in a chair with your neck and head rolled forward and pointing down, so you can read your laptop, cellphone or whatever device you happen to be reading with at this exact moment. Am I right? Its ok, I am in the exact same position too as I write this, and I ought to know better. 

From a matter of physical health everything about sitting the way I just described, which is close to how most of us spend nearly every waking hour, is wrong. The human body did not evolve for a sedentary lifestyle. It evolved to function most properly standing erect with the shoulders pulled back, chin and head held high, hips neutral, and spine erect. Yet very few of us actually spend time in this position. Modern life has the average individual spending 8-10 hours per day sitting at a desk, followed by let’s say another 30 minutes in the car or on the bus both to and from work, so that’s an hour; then we get home to watch between 1-3 hours of television in precisely the same position. That’s nearly 15 hours a day spent in poor posture. It has gotten to the point where simply existing in proper neutral posture position has become painful for many, because the very act of stretching ourselves into such a foreign position has become challenging due to the changes in posture associated with our chronic bad posture. 

Common poor posture (left) vs correct/neutral posture (right)

This plays an extremely negative role in our health, and as such our overall wellbeing and happiness (you knew I’d bring it around to happiness at some point). Low back pain is a common ailment associated with chronically bad posture and is the leading cause of missed work in the United States according to the CDC. Low back pain isn’t the only issue, migraines have been reported amongst 10-20% of the entire adult population and, while not always, are often caused by chronic back and shoulder tightness. Anyone who has had a migraine, or a chronic low back pain can tell you that it is pretty damned hard to be happy and cheerful when dealing with that sort of pain. 

The truth is that modern lifestyles are not in accordance with the way our bodies were created in nature and as such there are consequences. The average individual simply does not move enough, and we spend too much time in poor, unhealthy positions that negatively affect our physical and mental health. 

It isn’t just at the physical level that posture can have a negative impact, it happens at the social and emotional level as well. When I first started learning about posture and wellness years ago, I came across a Ted Talk and the associated research of Harvard Social Psychologist, Dr. Amy Cuddy (that’s 2 Harvard Social Psychologists now in the past 7 days, Cuddy and Dan Gilbert). Dr. Cuddy’s research was groundbreaking because they demonstrated interesting findings about posture and how it affects our self-perception, self-esteem, and how others perceive us as well (read the original here) Dr. Cuddy noted that there are certain postures that seem to be universally associated with pride, winning, success, power, dominance and control. Cuddy called these positions, high power positions (which interestingly enough are the textbook image of what “good” posture is).  Most of those postures involve good, erect, open posture that displays confidence and almost appear to be innately ingrained in our psychology,  as even people who are born blind adopt this stance when they are feeling confident and proud despite never having actually seen it. (I have included some examples in the image.) The opposite were low power positions that demonstrated fear, weakness, shame, and hiding and were marked by closed positions, rounding the body so as to protect the organs and whatnot from a perceived threat. 

Examples of high-power poses (top) vs low-power poses (bottom)

These positions were positions not created but observed by Dr. Cuddy and her team who sought to better understand what was going on. They created a series of different tests that sought to explain the mental, psychological, and physiological differences associated with high power and low power positions. Among the variables considered were: hormonal differences (testosterone and cortisol) in the same individual following several minutes (short duration) each of high power and low power positions; subjective self-perception following high power and low power positions (e.g. whether they felt confident or not); and a social analysis from a blinded “judge” who would pick a hypothetical ideal candidate for a job with nothing to go off except for a headshot – where the headshots used followed either a period of high power or low power posing. 

The results were fascinating and controversial. On the first observation, Cuddy and her team noted higher cortisol (stress hormone) in low power poses vs higher testosterone (confidence, power) in the high-power poses. This particular bit of research was the source of criticism as several ensuing studies hoping to build on Cuddy’s original research failed to replicate similar results. Being the good scientist that I am, I will say that more research is needed here. But, what the following studies did confirm was: individuals reported feeling happier and more confident in themselves following high power poses vs low power poses AND the blind selectors who were supposed to pick the so called “ideal job candidate” selected the individual who had done power poses, without knowing this of course, nearly 80% of the time, stating that those individuals seemed confident, capable, and more likely to get the job done. 

Dr. Cuddy and Wonderwoman showing an example
of good posture in a high-power pose

I found this fascinating. I wasn’t surprised to find that individuals felt better after holding high power poses, but the fact that the high-power posers would be chosen more than the low power posers as confident and capable, despite no knowledge of which pose had been held, was incredible. The fact that we perceive ourselves more confidently following high-power positions speaks volumes about the role of good posture in our happiness and well-being. The key to happiness is in knowing, loving, and accepting yourself, and this comes much easier when you feel good about yourself. Plus, I think on some level, we all care about what others think of ourselves despite knowing that this can be unhealthy, and that it will likely cause anxiety at some point. But it is natural, we evolved to respond to such things because it gave us greater chances of survival. It seems we are still drawn to those who seem able to protect us and be strong leaders. I don’t want to say that being perceived well by others will make you happy, in fact in can make you an asshole, but I think being respected by your fellows and by yourself is an important step into realizing happiness. 

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