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Emotion, Mental health

Dance yourself happy?

New research expands on the links between emotionally expressive movement and mood induction.

21 February 2024

By Emma Young

If you find yourself hitting a productivity slump at work, perhaps you should get up and dance. This, at least, is the implication of new research finding that copying ‘happy’ dance moves improves mood and makes people feel more motivated to achieve work goals. 

This new study, led by Eva-Madeleine Schmidt at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Germany,  and published in the British Journal of Psychology, follows earlier findings that asking people to ‘jump for joy’ can make them feel happier, while asking them ‘sink to the floor in sadness’ could lower their mood. Instead of asking participants to copy these particular actions, Schmidt and her colleagues turned to the EMOKINE dance stimuli library, which contains videos of simple dance movement sequences created to express a different emotion. The library also contains videos in which a robot avatar performs the same dance sequences.

A total of 66 adults (about two thirds female, average age 36) learned both the ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ dance sequences, then performed them. Some copied the human dancer, while others copied the robot avatar. At various points, the participants also reported on their mood (they gave ratings for a range of emotions, including anger and fear, as well as happiness and sadness) and how motivated they felt to tackle work-related goals. 

Schmidt and her colleagues found that, whether they’d copied a human or robot avatar, after performing the ‘happy’ dance, participants felt happier and reported more work-related motivation. After performing the ‘sad’ dance, they said they felt sadder. The team’s analysis also revealed that more the happy dance boosted happiness (and the more the participants reported liking the character in the video, whether human or robot), the bigger the boost to work-related motivation. 

The finding that ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ dance moves affected the participants’ emotional state feeds into an ongoing debate about the extent to which moving muscles in the body or face can alter how you feel.   

Earlier work has found that when people copy a smile, this can make them feel happier. However, research that found that holding a pencil between the teeth — to mimic some of the facial movements of smiling — improved people’s mood has failed to replicate. In this study, the participants knew when they were copying a ‘happy’ dance and when they were copying a ‘sad’ dance, because the videos were labelled. This knowledge, rather than the actual physical movements per se, may have led to the mood changes. Another limitation of the study is that the final mood measure was taken immediately after the dance performance, so the researchers don’t how long the impacts on mood may last. 

Still, the work does suggest that copying emotionally expressive dance moves may help to shift our mood. Given the additional findings on work motivation, the team suggests that copying dance videos could be a way to boost productivity in the workplace. 

They do also concede, though, that this strategy may not be broadly popular: when the participants were asked to indicate, on a scale of 1 to 100, how likely they were to actually use dance movements to regulate their mood in future, the average score was just 39. But if employees might be reluctant to start dancing at their desks in the workplace, home-workers may be more willing to give it a try. 

Read the paper in full.