Quote of the day:  You get all kinds of happiness advice on the Internet from people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Don’t trust them. Actually, don’t trust me either. (Eric Barker)

Baseball is considered the most superstitious of all sports. Baseball players and coaches engage in bizarre, sometimes disgusting rituals, in an effort to appease the gods of the diamond and bring home just one more win. Last July the Cleveland Indians held a pre-game ritual to try to snap catcher Yan Gomes out of a hitting slump. Candles were lit. A white sheet was donned. Music from The Lion King was played. A live chicken was sacrificed. Gomes promptly went 0 for 2, though he still fared better than the chicken.

Most baseball rituals are less elaborate, but probably no more effective:

  • Hall of Famer Satchel Paige had his pitching arm rubbed down with axel grease before each game, believing that this would enable him to go nine full innings.
  • Minor leaguer Ron Wright shaved his forearms for years, in the belief that it would help him hit better. In his first Major League appearance he struck out, hit into a double play, and grounded into a rare triple play, accounting for an amazing six outs in three at-bats. He finished his career in the minors.
  • MVP Larry Walker (#33) believed in the power of 3’s, setting his alarm each morning for 6:33, taking batting practice in batches of 3 pitches, and buying tickets for 33 kids in section 333 of the stadium. He also got married at 3:33 pm, on the third of the month, and divorced three years later, with his wife reportedly taking him for $3 million in the settlement. Hence, he is the third entry in this list.
  • Detroit manager Jim Leyland, a 1700 game winner, refused to wash or change his underwear during a 12 game winning streak in 2011. “Apparently Leyland felt that it was worth putting up with a losing streak in his undies for a winning streak on the field,” notes Gavin Evans.

Rituals can simplify our lives. A friend of ours has eaten the exact same breakfast every morning for the last several years. It’s healthy, and he enjoys it, and he finds that when he is traveling and has to eat something else he feels a bit out of sorts. Rituals can help us be more productive. Most of what you read on this blog is written in one of two Starbucks locations, generally at the same two tables (the picture at the top of this post is from one of those tables, and I try to keep this unhappy socket in mind as I write). One of the secrets of writing is to have a specific place you do most of your work, and these two tables are mine. What do I do if someone is sitting at my table when I arrive? I have tried several things, including reasoning with them or offering them money, but the most effective technique is to simply pull up a chair, sit down and start working as if they are not there. I find that humming, or sniffing continuously or having mumbled conversations with invisible people helps speed things along. Maybe I’ll try Jim Leyland’s underwear trick…

Rituals can also (and you knew we would get here sooner or later) make you happier. Neuroscientist Alex Korb’s book The Upward Spiral examines the role of neuroscience in depression, and Erik Barker offers several observations from the book here:

  • Guilt and shame feel good. Seriously, these emotions activate the same region of the brain as pride, so it’s easy to get into the habit of feeling guilty. I have known people who feel immensely better when they feel worse about themselves (as in “I like sermons that tell me I’m going to hell”). It’s a sad state to live in.
  • Ditto for worrying, which is a pretty useless strategy for anything except raising your blood pressure, but which has a calming effect on the brain, since it feels better to be doing something, even if that something is counter-productive.

Korb says these behaviors become habits, and become self-reinforcing over time. He suggests four practices that can also become habits and help reverse the downward spiral:

  1. Ask, “What am I grateful for?” Feeling gratitude, for anything, releases the same neurotransmitters that antidepressants do. Here’s the secret: even if you can’t find anything, the act of looking for it creates the effect. Set a timer, or write it into your calendar and ask yourself. Bonus: if you are grateful for someone, sharing that with them boosts the impact (for both of you).
  2. Label negative feelings. Put a name on what you are feeling, as in “I am really disappointed,” or “I feel ashamed,” or “I AM SO EXCITED BECAUSE I WORK AT STARBUCKS AND THAT FOURTH SHOT OF ESPRESSO REALLY GOT THINGS ROLLIN TODAY!!!! WOOHOO!!!!” or “I am feeling totally creeped out because a man sat down at our table and started talking to himself.” Why does this work? Labeling emotions lets the rational part of your brain take the wheel, and it drives much less erratically than the emotional part of your brain. Neuroscience backs this up: labeling an unpleasant emotion disarms and deflates it. Don’t believe it? FBI hostage negotiators do, and use this technique regularly.
  3. Make a decisionNot deciding is stressful and saps your emotional energy. Making a choice, even if it’s not the absolute, perfect, 100% best one, is almost always the way to go, since in most cases good enough really is good enough. PLUS, making a decision reduces anxiety, and in the “our brains are weird department” here’s the kicker: If you decide to do something you will enjoy it more than if you feel compelled to do it. Choosing to exercise will give you more joy than having to exercise. Rats who thought they were choosing to receive a dose of cocaine actually had stronger physical responses to the drug than rats who randomly received the same dosage. Deciding matters (at least if you’re a rat with a coke habit).
  4. Touch people. Handshakes, pats on the back, non-creepy hugs, and massages all release calming chemicals in your brain, and can actually reduce the intensity of physical pain. Longer hugs are more effective, but of course should be limited to select people. Note that texting does not work. Also you can get a two-for-one deal if you rub your spouse’s back since the contact is good for both of you.

Some of these suggestions seem almost too simple, and they remind me of the Old Testament story of Naaman, who was offered an unbelievably simple solution for his illness but wanted no part of it because it wasn’t what he preferred. Living a happy life is a choice….more accurately, it’s choices, made every day, and some are quite simple because despite its complexity, parts of your brain are actually pretty dumb and easily hacked. In a sense, parts of your brain are ‘naive,’ and will believe whatever you choose to tell them. That’s why it’s so critical that you tell yourself positive things.

So ask, label, decide, and touch. And whatever else you do, definitely keep washing your underwear.

NEXT WEEK: Special Valentine’s posts.

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