It’s amazing how life keeps teaching me lessons. For the last 3 months my ability to face the world with a smile has been somewhat challenged.
These have been the weeks leading up to and following my daughter’s departure to college and life in London. She knows I miss her but I’ve been reluctant to pile on the agony by blogging about it.
But the time has come; not because I can’t bear it any longer, but because I’ve worked out what’s going on.
I’ve lost the person I laugh with. In fact, in the last two years I’ve lost both of them. My dad permanently, and my daughter for a term at a time. One of the many things that links my dad to me and me to my daughter is a heightened sense of absurdity. Or plain silliness. Both my Dad and I were (a little) disruptive in class, mainly because we could see the funny side of anything and everything. Dad was permanently banned from Geography and spent the time smoking out by the bins and Miss Goult, our formidable Geography teacher at St Hilda’s, definitely had a hard, rather than soft, spot for me. I well remember being sent to the Headmistress’s study one day and, as saw me, she said ‘Geography again?’
I should say that Polly was better behaved at school than her predecessors – or hid it well. Home was a different matter: we always talked to each other in silly voices, frequently hid from each other around the house, used several tired and hackneyed jokes and expressions and continued to laugh at them long after they ceased to be funny to anyone else. We were (are) always finding ways to make each other laugh.
I miss that: my body is missing it too. If laughter is the best medicine then my drug supply has dried up. Which may explain the long-running cold that has beset me the past 3 weeks. I’ve also noticed that my body is sending up more cravings than normal. I’m looking longingly at chocolate, and I’ve had unusually vivid visions of toast, butter and raspberry jam – one of my favourite childhood comfort foods. What’s that about?
It took a while for the penny to drop. In fact it took for me to spend a day in the company of the other ‘Silliest Person I Know’ (you know who you are Simon Foster) to pinpoint what’s missing, and realise just how much I was missing it.
I love to laugh, especially at absurdities, and I love to be silly. I also love someone to bounce off. It’s not just a habit, it’s a sort of therapy. Without that, my serious side surfaces all too readily and I become quite straight faced and intense, with a tendency to become obsessively busy. Not good.
So why share? Certainly not to tell a ‘poor me’ story. I have a great life with loads to be thankful for. Possibly to explain the quiet on the blog, but also – mainly – to help you think about whether you are laughing enough and getting the biochemical benefits.
Feeling happy is a stimulus response effect. Something makes you laugh/smile/feel warm inside, and the body releases neurotransmitters to match.
Too often we talk about depression and anxiety as though it is simply a lack of serotonin, or dopamine – or too much adrenalin or adrenochrome. Of course that may, technically, be true. If your diet is poor and your use of stimulants or mood altering substances (sugar, gluten, alcohol, nicotine, OTC drugs) is high then your ability to make enough neurotransmitters may be limited. But the thing that strikes me time and again when I listen to clients talk about their lives is that we take it all far too seriously. Too much work, too much stress, too much serious focus on being seriously healthy, too much exercise done with a straight face, too much worry, too much debt, too much, too much, too much. And not enough sleep or veg, or relaxation or carelessness or laughter or silliness.
When we reduce mood to biochemistry we forget about the stimulus bit. No matter how much chemical happiness is waiting in the wings of your synapses, you won’t release it unless something happens to make you feel happy. And, in a world obsessed with bad news, that normally involves making a conscious effort to seek out a happy feeling.
Our lives are to a large extent ruled by the chemicals released by our brains: neurotransmitters and endorphins. Our perceived autonomy is an illusion. Like rats in a maze we follow predictable behaviour patterns that lead to predictable biochemical rewards. These become our habits, and we notice them only when something happens to interrupt the flow; like children leaving home. Then suddenly the maze feels unfamiliar and unwelcoming and we are forced to contemplate our surroundings, looking for new ways to feel good.
Unless we allow this feeling to emerge into our awareness our brains will make the choice for us at a subconscious level. That’s not always good news as they are driven to seek out the quickest and easiest of getting the biochemical rewards we’re after – often at the expense of overall wellbeing. Surrounded as we are on every street corner by sugar, nicotine and alcohol, it’s not surprising that your brain chooses to fill the gap with artificial highs instead as a substitute for real, life-enhancing joys.
So what’s the alternative?
To give yourself the chance to make better decisions it might help to look at the things that are known to cause endorphin release. You probably already know that exercise can raise endorphin levels, but there’s a much bigger picture here:
The foods you associate with home and fun and love will create an endorphin rush. Chocolate is high on the list, and cake, and most sugary foods. Comfort foods too like beans on toast, tomato soup and mashed potato. Sadly they’re not always good for you but they do make you feel better. Alcohol can fit into this category but its effect on the brain is more complex than that.
Certain smells can take us right back to childhood, or to moments spent with loved ones or on holiday. Lodged deep in the brain stimulating our olfactory centre is a key way to encourage endorphin release. Simply smelling vanilla can work – or an aromatherapy massage, the smell of roast chicken or mince pies, your favourite suntan lotion, or the perfume your grandmother used to wear.
Feeling close to people and getting a sense of belonging is a great way to release endorphins. Chatting and gossiping about happy things works well, so does joining a book group or enthusiasts club. Romance, intimacy and sex also set off endorphins and a whole array of other feel-good chemicals. (Alcohol helps increase our sense of connection, sometimes with disastrous results!!)
The best known way to release endorphins is the runner’s high but all forms of exercise: jogging, cycling, football, gardening, cleaning create endorphins. The latest research suggests that different bodies (and personalities) benefit from different styles, so get to know your own preferences. Daredevil activities like hang-gliding and bungie jumping work for some (though they can also increase stress hormones) while gentle activities like walking, meditation and yoga are best for others.
A good giggle releases endorphins, even smiling works. Clowning around and being silly are primary routes to feeling better. So is watching funny stuff on the box. And messing about with your daughter.
Listening to great music, cuddling your pets, watching a feelgood film, paddling in the sea, sharing food with friends, dancing all night, volunteering or helping charitable causes, building a snowman (or sandcastle), reading stories to a child, playing in a band, relaxing in the sun.
Here’s what I’ve noticed. When our daily lives get too busy and too serious, when we don’t allow ourselves to come up for air, our tendency is to go for the quickest, cheapest route to endorphin production. For most people that means prioritising the oral production of endorphins: sugary foods, comfort foods, junk food, fast food. The faster the better. The unfortunate effect of this on our bodies is that we become addicted to them and they become less effective, so we need more.
When you look at it this way, there’s no surprise that we’re overrun with obesity. Eating is one of the few sources of endorphins left in our society that doesn’t take both time and money to generate. And we’re surrounded by easy routes to oral pleasure everywhere we go. Meanwhile, the busier and more ‘successful’ you are, the less time you have for other types of endorphin production like connection, exercise and laughter. And, let’s be honest, all of those require you to make a bit more effort than reaching for a jam doughnut.
So where’s all this taking us?
For me, I have realised that I need to make more effort to replace the lost laughter endorphins. I probably need to get out in nature more, make more effort to connect with my friends, and find other ways to have a giggle.
For you? I hope you have seen another link between being well and being happy. I hope it will give you permission to make more time to have more fun. What form of endorphin rush will you choose? How can you make time for it? How much better do you want to feel?