The Science of Willpower

Secrets for self-control without suffering

Change Your Posture

Change your mind and mood.

Quick, notice your posture as you read this. Are you slumped at your desk, shoulders curved forward, spine rounded? Or sitting up straight, with a tall spine but relaxed shoulders?

How you're sitting may be influencing how you're feeling - not just in this moment, but throughout the day. 

A recent study in the European Journal of Social Psychology (Brion, Petty, & Wagner 2009) looked at how posture influences self-confidence. Participants were asked to hold one of two postures: slumped sitting or sitting up straight. While holding the posture, they completed a mock job application, listing their own strengths and weaknesses that would be relevant for the job. They then rated the degree to which they believed themselves to be a good candidate for the job market, a good interviewee for a new position, a good performer on-the-job, and a satisfied future employee.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

The researchers found that posture had a significant effect on these ratings. Sitting slumped over was associated with lower work-related self-confidence than sitting straight up.

It's an interesting example of how the body can influence the mind, and just one of many findings that suggest that we check in with our bodies to know how we feel. For example:

• Positioning the muscles of your face in a way that mimics natural emotion expressions can shift your mood. For example, putting a pen between your teeth engages the muscles of smiling. This simple (and somewhat ridiculous) act increases happiness and amusement. (Strack, Martin, & Stepper, 1988).

• Changing your breathing pattern can shift your mood. To feel quiet joy, practice breathing steadily and smoothly in an out of your nose, relaxing your belly, throat, and face. (Philippot, Chapelle, & Blairy, 2002)

• Making a fist-a traditional gesture of power - increases men's self-esteem. Caveat: just make the fist-you don't need to throw a punch! (Shubert & Koole 2009)

These are all good reasons for taking care of the body and paying attention to habits of posture, facial expression, muscle tension, and breathing. One of the best ways to become aware of physical habits is to take up a mind-body exercise like yoga and pilates. Mind-body practices help you become more aware of what you are doing with your body and also how to embody specific states of mind, including confidence, courage, and relaxation.

So the next time you're feeling stressed or need a boost of confidence, consider changing your body to change your mind. And the next time you're at a job interview (or first date), listen to your mother's wisdom, and sit up straight!

Studies cited:
Briñol, P., Petty, R.E., & Wagner, B. (2009). Body posture effects on self-evaluation: A self-validation approach. European Journal of Social Psychology, 39, 1053-1064.
Philippot, P., Chapelle, G., & Blairy, S. (2002). Respiratory feedback in the generation of
emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 16, 605-627.
Shubert, T.W., & Koole, S.L. (2009). The embodied self: Making a fist enhances men's power-related self-conceptions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
45, 828-834.
Strack, F., Martin, L.L., & Stepper, S. (1988). Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: a nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 768-777.

 

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist at Stanford University.

more...

Subscribe to The Science of Willpower

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?