How full is your glass?

What do 'gorillas', the letter K, and lavender have in common? They all feature in studies by Professor Richard Wiseman who talks to E&T about the World's Most Relaxing Room and measuring happiness.

Do you have a low boredom threshold? Perhaps you are walking too fast and trying to cram too much into your day? If you also eat quickly, finish others' sentences and look at your watch too often, you may need a Relaxation Room.

Richard Wiseman, Professor for the Public Understanding of Psychology at Hertfordshire University, showcased the room in October 2008. "The pace of modern-day life, the credit crunch and financial crisis are making many people stressed, so we have created this space to help them relax," he says.

And so "the World's Most Relaxing Room" was born.

But first, let's go back a little to another of Wiseman's experiments to see if we really are getting more frenetic.

In 2006, Professor Wiseman measured walking speeds. It was a repeat of a 1994 study by Robert Levine from California State University.

Wiseman wanted to see if the pace of life was accelerating. He secretly measured lone people in different cities at their maximum walking speeds with a stopwatch. Singapore was the fastest, a town in Malawi the slowest and London came 12th out of 32.

Just over a decade later, Wiseman and his global team found that, while the cities at the top of the list (Dublin, Tokyo, New York, London and Paris) hadn't speeded up much, walking speeds in the slower ones (Bucharest, Vienna, Sofia, Prague, Warsaw, Stockholm, Guangzhou and Singapore) had, by between two and four seconds. Taking a global average, walking speeds had increased. Whereas it took 13.76 seconds to cover 60ft in 1994, in 2006 it took 12.49 seconds.

But how does this affect our well-being?

In a 1973 study, two Princeton psychologists found evidence that people were less likely to be good Samaritans when rushing. Also, Robert Levine, who had been measuring global kindness, discovered that inhabitants of smaller towns and those with a slower pace were more helpful (i.e. in returning dropped items or helping a blind person across the road).

I asked Wiseman whether he thought this bode badly for our future. Is happiness decreasing in the Western world?

"No. Given the set point theory, you would expect it to stay about the same. Obviously, something like the recession might make people feel glum in the short term, but overall, I suspect, things are quite level."

Magic circle

So who is Professor Wiseman and how can he engineer our happiness?

Before he became what he is now, Richard Wiseman had another profession - he was a magician, entering The Magic Circle, the magicians' society, at the age of 16. Wiseman then went on to get a degree and a PhD in psychology, before swapping the lecture seat for the lectern. He calls himself a social psychologist and likes to do studies that have an impact on people's lives - not in the lab, but out there among the people. Wiseman's two books on what makes people lucky or unlucky are called 'The Luck Factor' and 'Did You Spot the Gorilla'?

According to a study, 'Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change', 50 per cent of sadness is genetic, so we can't change that. This was discovered by measuring the happiness of identical twins growing up in different houses. Ten to 15 per cent of happiness is governed by our status or circumstances, and the good news is that the remaining 40 or so of our happiness percentage depends on what we do about it.

In 1994, Wiseman began researching what makes people lucky. One experiment he did involved about 100 volunteers counting photographs in a newspaper. They spotted the photos, but did they spot the advertisement in 2in-high type telling them to mention they'd seen it and thereby win £100?

Amazingly, about 70 per cent of them didn't, because they weren't expecting or looking out for it!

In a similar instance, only 10 per cent of the crowd noticed when a man in a gorilla suit rushed out onto a basketball court; the others were all too busy keeping a ball tally.

(If you don't believe it, try it out for yourself - go to the Professor's Quirkology website and watch the 'Colour-Changing Card Trick' video.)

Wiseman's explanation for our inattention is that, when focused on something else or under pressure, you can miss what's staring you in the face (presumably why you can never see your keys right there on the table when you're late for work).

Keeping an open mind and being relaxed will help you to spot the gorilla: i.e. to have the potential, the chance, the lucky break.

Positive thinking

Positive thinking helps. Frame of mind - a 'glass-half-full' or a 'glass-half-empty' mentality - can put a spring or a stoop in your step, according to research. One study by John Bargh at New York University found that when volunteers did a word puzzle containing 'old age' vocabulary (wrinkled skin, bingo), their walking speeds subsequently slowed.

Smiling is a stress-buster, too. In fact, this is a tip from Wiseman's description of the World's Most Relaxing Room: "Smile more. Don't take life too seriously and improve your ability to cope with stressful situations by seeing the funny side of whatever happens."

In 2001, Wiseman engineered 'LaughLab' for the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The endgame? To find the world's funniest joke. However, Wiseman does not believe that there is such a thing: "In many ways, I think that we uncovered the world's blandest joke - the gag that makes everyone smile but very few laugh out loud.

"The top jokes had one thing in common - they created a sense of superiority in the reader," he continues. "We were not the first to notice that people laugh when they feel superior: the theory was described by Plato in 'The Republic'. According to Freud, jokes act as a kind of psychological release valve that helps prevent the pressure of repression from becoming too great."

LaughLab got plenty of jokes submitted about "loveless marriages" and "the age-old battle of the sexes". Here are two examples:

"A patient says to his psychiatrist: 'Last night I made a Freudian slip. I was having dinner with my mother-in-law and wanted to say: 'Could you please pass the butter', but instead I said: 'You silly cow, you've completely ruined my life.'"

And: "A man driving on a highway is pulled over by a police officer. The officer asks: 'Did you know your wife and children fell out of your car a mile back?' A smile creeps on to the man's face and he exclaims: 'Thank God! I thought I was going deaf!'"

That funny duck

Through LaughLab, Wiseman and his team also discovered that when a duck starred in a joke, it got more votes than when featuring other animals. Wiseman attributes this to something called facial feedback. Apparently, the hard 'k' sound makes your face smile when you say it, and smiling makes people feel happy because you often experience the emotion that goes with the expression.

I ask Wiseman if he had to devise an experiment to measure happiness, what would it be?

Wiseman replies: "I would be tempted to secretly film people as they walked along the high streets of various large cities and small towns and count how many smiling faces there were. It would be interesting to see whether people in large cities were happier than those in small towns and which places produced the happiest people."

But he'll have to ascertain that their smiles are genuine. The fake smile uses only the mouth, the zygomatic major muscles at the lip edge, whereas the genuine one also employs the orbicularis oculi muscles around each eye, which results in eye crinkles.

During 19th century investigations into electrophysiology, neurologist Guillaume Duchenne applied electrodes with electrical currents to human faces and discovered that these orbicularis oculi muscles can only be activated involuntarily.

Super-relaxed

Can Wiseman's World's Most Relaxing Room help us to combat short-term glumness? Can coloured light, a smoke machine, incense and a soundtrack really unwind us and help us make the best of things?

The science behind it is briefly this: all the Room's elements are proven relaxants, but Wiseman wanted to discover if a combination of all of the below would make you "super-relaxed":

Green light - produces dopamine in the brain, which is supposed to have a calming effect. Therefore, trips to parks and the country are recommended.

Blue - whether looking up at the sky or staring at a sky-blue screen, produces sensory deprivation that focuses a person inwards and away from outer stresses and strains. 

Music - Wiseman's soundtrack was specially commissioned for the Relaxation Room study from Hertfordshire's Professor of Music, Tim Blinko. It features a soprano, a Tibetan singing bowl used in meditation, and a string ensemble. It also has a slow rhythm with no sudden changes in tempo and a low frequency.

Lavender - Wiseman says: "There has been a bit of neurological research into this. My understanding is that it encourages the production of a kind of alpha wave in the brain that makes people less focused, and more relaxed, in their thinking."

So what did some of the participants think? A minority, "those who strive on stress" (in Wiseman's words), would hate it. But journalist Jane Fryer had the opposite reaction. She assures that her pulse rate actually dropped by 16 beats per minute after just 15 minutes in the Relaxation Room. Not only that, she describes herself as feeling "serene" for several hours afterwards. Other participants describe the experience as "a power nap" and "lavender clouds".

Why not try it yourself at home (see sidebar)?

Alternatively, you could enjoy LaughLab's now famous (if not to say bearded) top-voted joke about two hunters. It has become so clichéd there's no need to reproduce it here.

Professor Richard Wiseman's favourite joke, by the way, is:

"A dog goes into a telegraph office, takes a blank form and writes: 'Woof, woof, woof. Woof, woof. Woof. Woof, woof, woof.'

"The clerk examines the paper and politely tells the dog: 'There are only nine words here. You could send another Woof for the same price.'

"The dog looks confused and replies: 'But that would make no sense at all.'"

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