At number 10 Downing Street, a lone figure at a window—the British prime minister—stares out at the night. Judging by the slope of his shoulders, grave matters of state are clearly weighing him down.

Or are they?

For a protracted moment, the man’s stress is virtually palpable. Then, as if responding to some inner sound-track, he suddenly glides from the window in a moonwalk and bursts into a body-jiggling dance. Silly. Unexpected. And a highly therapeutic psychological response to stress.

But do heads-of-state really behave in such an unseemly manner?

Truth be told, this one did. Just hours after publicly besting a rather nasty American president who, in addition to deadlocking delicate summit negotiations in London, had the temerity to make a rather bold pass at the prime minister’s love interest. A dirty business, politics, is it not?

Of course, our sharing in this unguarded moment of sheer exuberance at the window might not have been possible had the prime minister been anyone other than Hugh Grant.

The 2003 movie is “Love Actually” by writer/director Richard Curtis. And what the window dancing scene captures is a psychological truth—that if big time stress is not to overwhelm us, it is sometimes necessarily punctuated by the euphoria of joy.

The victory dance is hardly a figment of movie-making imagination.

Just tune in for the highlights of any NFL game to see how it’s done. Why it happens on such a consistent basis isn’t such a mystery either, considering that scoring touchdowns is, in fact, touchy work.

There’s a lot on the line. Social approval from fans in the bleachers and peers on the team are highly desirable outcomes for any athlete who also happens to be a member of a social species. Conceptions of self-image and self-worth also hang in the balance, regardless of how fleetingly. Add to all those concerns what play-by-play success or failure means to the economic security of a professional athlete, and you’ve got a pressure cooker of stress and tension ready to bubble over in the moments just before a touchdown. No wonder those guys dance when they get it right.

We humans aren’t the only ones to let off the steam of tension with spontaneous bursts of joy.

Luther, an Atlantic Bottlenose dolphin, was a co-worker of mine when I was training animals for the U.S. Navy. Luther was learning to participate in a scientific study that would eventually “ask” him a series of questions, one-by-one. To answer each question, he would be expected to provide a simple, behavioral response by touching the tip of his beak-like rostrum to one of two paddles.

Luther found the task confusing at first. Sometimes, in frustration, he would sink just below the surface and release two or three sizable bubbles of breath—the dolphin equivalent of a cartoon character’s bubble of question marks.

One day, Luther provided a correct answer to a sample question, and I rewarded him with a quick tweet of my training whistle to signal the impending delivery of a fish snack. After having endured many fruitless efforts, Luther was so excited he could hardly contain himself. In fact, he emitted a high-pitched squeal of delight and darted off for a victory lap around his pen before returning for his fish.

Luther was ostensibly working for fish—the dolphin equivalent of cash on the barrelhead. But his response to finally getting the task right seems to belie such a conclusion. It suggests instead that he had become intrinsically motivated by the challenge itself —and experienced joy as the emotional payoff of his persistence.

Behaviorists know that once the fundamentals of a task like Luther’s (or any other) have been learned, the best way to keep an animal (or a human) interested in the task is by rewarding ongoing efforts on a random basis. Slot machines operate on the same principle. Once a person knows to pull the lever, they are kept coming back for more by the unpredictable nature of the jackpot reward.

As a veteran of numerous scientific studies, Luther was much like a slot machine player returning to Las Vegas. Even though challenged by the parameters of his new task, he knew the overall nature of the game well enough to realize that jackpot payoffs would come eventually. In effect, and in pursuit of the emotional reward of joy, he had come to think long-term and strategically as a means of persisting through a period of short-term stress and challenge.

Bully for him, I say. Now there’s a chap should consider putting himself up against that Hugh Grant fellow next election for prime minister. Wonder how he’d make out at a London summit.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2013

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