As we approached the last days of 2020, a lot of us embraced the theory that when we flipped the calendar to a new year, everything bad would disappear and be replaced by all things happy.
It hasn't quite worked out that way. Congress was the site of a riot. Researchers admitted that they weren't sure if the coronavirus vaccine will work against the new variant strain. Slack, the communication system keeping businesses afloat while employees work from home, broke down.
And that was just the first week.
Time for Plan B.
If we can't change the circumstances, perhaps we can alter our attitudes. Which brings us to the Happy Doc, otherwise known as Dr. Dale Anderson. A retired clinical professor at the University of Minnesota, he's convinced that we have the ability to make ourselves happy.
Anderson practices what he preaches with the fervor of Pollyanna on nitro cold brew. It's not that nothing negative ever happens — he has encountered his share of bad news — but he refuses to let it get the upper hand.
The key? "I'm very youthful," he said, before chuckling and backtracking slightly: "Well, maybe not very. But I am youthful. I believe you can act 25 years older than you are, or 25 years younger. I choose younger."
At 87 ("and a half," he insisted. "Remember when you were 7 and counted your age in half-years? Once you hit 80, you start doing it again."), Anderson is no stranger to setbacks. His beloved wife, the equally upbeat Annie, a retired psychotherapist, died, and he moved into a senior living center near his son's house, only to have the pandemic shut down all visitor access.
He also ended up having to table most of his work. He no longer has been able to lead wellness sessions for his fellow residents, and even though his website (acthappy.com) still exists, he admits that his ability to post things is hampered by his own limitations.
"I'm not a techie," he said. "I used to have someone come in to help me [with the website]. I am — slowly — getting better at Zoom, though."
With all those complications, how does he remain so positive? It starts with enjoying life, he insisted. "We have to enjoy what we're doing."
Give or take
Anderson believes there are two basic ways to approach a situation.
"We can focus on what life can bring to us or what we can bring to life," he said. "Some people let their lives be run by all the bad things that happen to them rather than what they can bring to their lives. I concentrate on what I can bring to life."
Remaining optimistic is a crucial step in making this mental adjustment. "People who look forward and expect things to get better" are more likely to find that to be the case, he said.
He's looking forward to the day the pandemic is over so he can return to fundraising for his favorite causes, including the WELLderly program he started for seniors.
"It's not for me," he said of the money he raises. "I have enough to get to the end of my life." He laughed before adding, "Well, not if I have 50 more years."
He's already lived nearly 50 years longer than anyone — except himself — thought he would.
"When I was in medical school, I was told that I'd never make it out of my 40s because there were too many bad genes in my family. All the people on my father's side died before they reached 50. But your genes are not your destiny."
His insight into the role that happiness plays in health came from a patient. An avid theatergoer, he had developed a clientele among the performers. He was treating a woman who complained of chronic pains for which Anderson could find no cure. She was playing an angry person in a play, and when that play closed and she landed a role playing a happy person in the next play, all her aches disappeared.
Anderson realized that in addition to medicine, he should have been studying the Stanislavsky school of method acting, an approach in which the actor makes a physical and emotional connection with the character. He conducted a survey of the Twin Cities acting community. The performers who described themselves as method actors reported a correlation between their roles and their health. The actors playing downer characters reported feeling worse than usual, while the actors with happier parts said they felt better.
"We can play the part of being happy in our daily lives," he said. "That's the role I've chosen for myself."
One of the things actors have to learn is to laugh on cue. Anderson has an easy system for teaching that to nonactors. It has three parts.
1. Start by saying, "Ha."
2. Then say. "Ha, ha."
3. Finally, say, "Ha, ha, ha." Then you tie them all together: "Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha."
He prescribes repeating the exercise three times a day for at least 15 seconds.
"You can teach yourself to laugh," he said. "It's just so simple."
He outlines other techniques in his book, "Never Act Your Age." They include:
• Maintain good posture in order to present yourself in an upbeat matter. There are lots of techniques for practicing good posture — including the classic book on the head — but Anderson suggests that whenever you feel yourself slumping, take three steps backward. Your body will instinctively adjust its alignment, raising your head, neck and shoulders.
• Keep your eyes wide open. Be aware of what's going on around you, searching, exploring and connecting.
• Smile, even if you're wearing a mask. Keep your forehead and cheeks up. Strive to appear radiant and alert.
• Do something that makes you feel better. Go for a walk. Call an old friend. Turn on upbeat music. Surround yourself with pleasing aromas.
• Shake up your routine. Sit in a different chair at the dinner table. Brush your teeth with the opposite hand. "Welcome new, novel and challenging encounters."
• Laugh. One of Anderson's favorite pieces of advice is the line he used to sign off the telephone: "Keep laughing for the health of it."