This is a simple trick for enhancing your happiness, your health, and your performance. I learned to keep a poker face while racing bicycles. To survive for any length of time in the professional peloton, you had to. If your expression showed any hint of discomfort—that’s exactly when the strong guys would attack. So I learned ways to hide my suffering. Keep the body still. Relax the fingers on the handlebars enough to play the piano. Breathe through the nose like I’m out for a Sunday stroll.
In studies on Perceived Level of Exertion, people whose face hold a grimace report working harder than people who put on a more passive expression. I know it’s true, because I not only read the research—I was the research.
From my very first days racing bikes, I had heard the rumors of performance-enhancing drugs in the sport of cycling. And while I may have had some moral inclination to stay clean, a fear of needles was actually my strongest motivation. Put those two together, and it doesn’t exactly equate to career longevity as a pro bike racer. Still, I was passionate (and probably a bit naïve) about becoming a professional cyclist. So I studied any subject I thought might make up for a possible pharmaceutical disadvantage. Every day invested into cycling was eventually matched by investments into psychology—mine and my competition.
And I got good at it, too. Strung out single file, I’d disguise my pain by casually taking a hand off the bars and scratching an imaginary itch on my ass. Or maybe I’d roll up beside a guy on an impossibly steep climb and start having a conversation. Sometimes I’d just look over and over again at a rider’s wheels or drivetrain like there was something wrong with his bike. Any trick I could use to get a mental edge over my competition, I tried.
And then several years after my cycling career was over, I learned, purely by accident, how to gain a mental advantage over myself.
The scene was the 2006 World Ironman Championships in Hawaii. To this day, it was the easiest race I’ve ever done. Even though I had bronchitis and a bacterial infection, I was just so incredibly freakin’ happy to be there! I could not wipe my smile away the whole day (9 hours and 50 minutes to be exact). It took me 140.6 miles of wind, heat, and humidity. But by the time I ran across the finish line with my hands in the air, I wore the truth on my face—Happiness is one powerful drug. And I was juiced up on it, baby! Which means every part of my body was rejoicing, too.
Mind is everywhere in the body. So, when you’re happy, every cell in your body is happy. When you’re depressed, every cell in your body is depressed. Thus, the quickest way to change your physiology for the better is, simply, to smile. Like Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”
Smiling has been one of my secret weapons since the 2005 triathlon season—the year I came back from Leukemia. I call it Joy Doping. And the cool thing is it’s not on any banned substance list.
Smiling as a performance enhancer? Happy cells? Ironically, the more stuck in your head you are, the more you’ll probably need a physical explanation to satisfy the logical side of your brain. So here’s a rather simplified one. The Zygomaticus Major is activated each time you turn that frown upside down. This “smile muscle” is linked to the thymus, a small gland which has been drawing special attention in the field of Immunological Surveillance.
Once thought to serve no role in the body, the thymus is increasingly recognized as a vital part of the immune system. Lymphocytes called T Cells (guess what the T stands for) are a major part of the body’s defense strategy, recognizing self from non-self:
Be nice to self. Kill non-self.
Politically incorrect but physiologically prudent—at least for any organism interested in self-preservation. The thymus is responsible for the “education” of the T Cells, contributing to their maturation so they can more effectively guard the host body against invaders both foreign (exogenous) and domestic (endogenous).
It’s interesting to note that the thymus gland shrinks after puberty. Before this time, it contributes to growth. Thus, atrophy of the thymus with age would seem reasonable if it’s no longer concerned with a developing body. But what if this wasting were due not to a lack of need but rather a lack of use?
Sensory motor amnesia is a term first used by Vladir Janda to describe a muscle which no longer works. Via either pain or disuse, the muscle has “forgotten” how to function. And the longer any muscle is turned off, the harder it can be to turn back on. For example, you probably know where your glutes are. Thanks to your job, you have extensive knowledge of the seated workplace environment. But just because you sit on your glutes when you work doesn’t mean your glutes work when you sit. In fact, working your ass off is a phrase which was probably motivated by the ass-wasting effects of the workplace environment. Sit on those cheeks long enough, and it won’t matter which one you turn. You won’t find either of them, because sensory motor amnesia has put them on a permanent lunch break. But before you get your panties in a wad–oh, wait…you can’t since your butt is purely hypothetical at this point. So maybe you won’t even be phased to hear that your ass is likely not the only part of your body on sabbatical.
Use it or lose it
The average child laughs 400 times a day. An adult averages less than four chuckles. Is it feasible then that atrophy of the thymus—a critical component of a healthy immune system—occurs because the mind-body connection wanes as we age; that adults become too far removed from the innocence and play they readily experienced as children; that the various physiological benefits associated with happiness are insufficient to support health in an organism too grown up or too preoccupied to focus on joy?
Studies by Hans Seyle and others have shown that the thymus can shrink to half its size within twenty-four hours of the onset of injury or illness or any extreme form of stress, physical or emotional. And, unfortunately, in absence of adequate thymic control, the antibodies produced by the B lymphocytes are likely to be autoantibodies. This sets the stage for many autoimmune disorders.
Death, is a stress, of course (particularly for the person who’s dead). Autopsies confirm this finding, with cadavers often presenting with severe atrophy of the thymus gland. But life, as we can all attest, is often pretty stressful, as well. And most of those stressors fall under one of the below headings:
–poor posture is an example of bad physical stress.
–synthetically manufactured medical drugs or pesticides are examples of bad chemical stress.
–too much exposure to computers, cell phones, microwave ovens, televisions, etc. are all examples of bad electromagnetic stress.
–eating non-foods or foods laden with chemicals (see Chemical above) are examples of bad nutrition stress.
–a burn (e.g., sunburn) is an example of bad thermal stress.
–being rushed or taking on more responsibility than you can manage is an example of bad psychic stress.
Of course, that last bullet point—Psychic—is the focus of this post. And while there are definitely Body-Mind connections which will be further explored later in upcoming blog posts, the Mind-Body connections are most commonly the driving factors. In other words—but still building upon the driving analogy—if the influence of the Body over the Mind is a street, then the impact the Mind has on the Body is a six lane expressway.
Here’s an example. Say, I hit you in your face—take my hand and give you a solid, open-palm slap across the cheek. It’s hard to tell which is worse: the pain or the shock. Either way, you would probably get so pissed off that no one could tell I left a mark on your face because it would be turning beet red with anger. Or, if this is the kind of thing you’re in to, you could become sexually aroused and want to jump my bones. And it’s actually feasible that my action elicits no reaction from you whatsoever. It all depends on the thoughts going through your head.
You may not control the stimulus, but you can control your reaction to the stimulus.
In the case of my Ironman World Championship race, the event was an obvious physical stimulus—or stress if you want to look at it that way: 140.6 miles of swimming, cycling, and running; almost ten hours in conditions which would make most crumble; minimal sleep the night before, not to mention the numerous events leading up to race day (which can be found here: http://triumphtraining.com/blogs/blog/6364600-hawaii-ironman-2006).
I might love to compete. I may be passionate about exploring my personal limits. But whether you’re racing or training or under any sort of physical or mental stress, your physiology at the time is suffering. So I made a choice…and smiled.
Smile and you activate Zygomaticus Major.
Zygomatics Major stimulates the thymus.
The thymus keeps you healthy.
When you’re healthy, you can perform.
Let me challenge you:
Wake up tomorrow morning and begin laughing. Force it if you have to until it becomes real. Or go look at your hair in the mirror—that might do the trick. Whatever you have to do to get started, do it and just laugh. Now do it non-stop for 60 seconds.
You just set the tone for the day. And you didn’t even need a prescription.