This is the second article in a two part series on happiness. Check out Science Behind Why Tai Chi Increases Happiness: Facial Expression for the first installment.
Newcomers to martial arts ride the initial wave of excitement when they begin studying and attend class judiciously. However, that initial excitement always wears off and we need facts to create the buy-in to keep practicing until results are felt.
Secondly, beginner students follow an instructor’s commands on blind faith entrusting the instructor to lead them through murky progress. Blind faith will only get you so far though an understanding of why you are doing an activity which needs to be gained to create the stick-to-itiveness that results in tangible progress.[hr]
Unfortunately, we can’t begin practicing tai chi and feel dramatic effects the next day. It is more an elixir then a drug. So how do we practice or teach tai chi long enough (I am talking 2 months here) to begin to benefit and stay motivated along the way?
We educate ourselves with solid, reliable research so that we know that we are benefiting from continual practice.
Research on Tai Chi and Happiness
Study # 1: Walking
A study at Florida Atlantic University discovered that the way people walk influences their mood and perceived level of happiness. Psychologist Sara Snodgrass led a group to believe that they were taking part in an experiment on heart rate and physical activity. Participants were divided into two groups:
Group 1: A 3 minute walk with long strides, head held high and arms swinging. Think proud.
Group 2: A 3 minute walk shuffling along and watching their feet. Think depressed.
Participants in Group 1 rated themselves as significantly happier.
How this applies to tai chi and happiness
In tai chi walking and movements we work towards expansion and maintenance of our “gates.”
Let’s pause to talk about maintaining an open posture for a minute. I am using gates to describe the joints of the body. When we do tai chi we aim to maintain open joints and appendages that stay rounded. We stand as though we have two racquetballs in our armpits. Our inguinal crease is not collapsed (more on stances) as we step forward, and we are actively pulling up with the crown of the head and down on the tailbone to elongate all of those nifty spaces between our discs. Describing it even makes me feel better.
The “proud” walk that Snodgrass describes enables increased oxygen uptake to all regions of the body, lifts us into a fearless posture, and orients the crown of our head (Bahui) to the sky. Internal energy studies postulate that the Bahui/crown is the door to clean chi that is entering from the atmosphere.
An experiment on the psychology of dance undertaken by S. Koch at the University of Heidelberg indicated that rounded movements increased happiness and linear movements stifled a person’s disposition. Koch conducted an experiment where subjects moved in linear routines or rounded, more flowing routines and then subjectively rated their level of happiness. The fluid movement produced a higher rating of happiness.
How this applies to tai chi and happiness
In tai chi we learn a pattern in a linear fashion but as soon as the choreography is understood, we round it off. A good example is Cloud Hands. Imagine painting a 4X4 foot square in front of you with your hand. Now shift your weight to paint the square and keep the hand steady in relationship to your body. Finally, round the corners of the box off and you have a single-handed silk reeling movement. The straight lines are needed to get the weight shift correct but then they are abandoned.
There is an intelligence embedded in the tai chi forms that is the accumulated knowledge of over 10 generations. Each new group of students-come-masters learns tai chi, enhances it, and passes it along to the next generation. It is truly a living art and only now is science able to take single snapshots of portions of its immense complexity. You benefit from doing the form and the world benefits from you doing the form.
The As If Principle: The Radically New Approach to Changing Your Life by Richard Wiseman.
This is a really interesting book that highlights William James and his original thoughts on “movement causes emotional response” that lead to physiology-driven research. It is a fun and digestible read. Two tablespoons of interesting, hold the stuffiness.