The Anatomy of Happiness

By Douglas Nelson
[Table Lessons]

“I’m a little perplexed,” announced my client, Ms. A. “About what?” I asked. “About how massage works,” she replied. Slightly confused at her question, I asked her to elaborate.

“We have been over the science of the work you do many times. When my shoulder was in so much pain, I think your explanations of the muscular anatomy and functional relationships were perhaps as important as the hands-on work you did. They deepened my understanding of the process as a whole, which gave me a greater sense of control over my pain. I had confidence that I could influence the outcome because I understood the process that created it.”

“So what is perplexing?” I asked.

“Now that my shoulder doesn’t hurt anymore, one of the most striking benefits of my massage sessions is the effect on my mood and how efficient I am after a session. When I go back to work, I get tons of stuff done. I know this sounds hokey, but I just feel much happier and more positive.”

I could see a growing sparkle of mischief in her eye as she asked, “So, Mr. Science, explain the better-mood phenomenon.” 

Laughingly accepting the challenge, I responded, “I’d be happy to try. For many decades, the prevailing wisdom was that emotions are experienced in the mind, and as a result, powerful emotions have physical consequences. For example, when someone offends us, we have the emotional experience of anger. Shortly thereafter, we experience the physical effects of anger, such as increased muscle tension, constricted breathing, increased heart rate, etc. Conversely, joy and happiness in the emotional centers of the brain have corresponding physical effects in the body, too. What our minds conceive, our body experiences. 

“As it turns out, however, the new scientific understanding is that these mind-body experiences are at least bidirectional, if not the other way around.”

“I’m a little lost,” she said. “What do you mean by ‘the other way around’?”

“Emerging science is providing some really good evidence that the physical experience can lead to the emotion, instead of the emotion manifesting as a physical experience.”

“Wow,” she exclaimed. “Give me an example.” 

“Sure. When your body experiences something, your mind tries to make sense of the experience. The brain needs a reason for what it experiences; we interpret meaning so we know how to respond appropriately. As an example, let’s imagine you have an increased respiration and pulse rate. Are you excited or are you fearful? When you think about it, the physical experiences of excitement and fear are almost identical. The mind must decide which emotion it is based on in the context of the experience. 

“The same can be true for a bad mood. I am sure you can remember being really tense some morning, just feeling completely out of sorts. If someone asked you why, you couldn’t really point to any specific offense as the reason. Throughout the morning, however, little things that would normally go unnoticed now really bothered you. You looked for things that were wrong to confirm what you were feeling. In essence, you created the emotional reason to explain your physical state.”

“I assume that the reverse is also true, correct?”

“Exactly. This might indeed explain what you experience after a massage. You leave my office with a very different physiology than when you arrived. The normalization of muscle function after massage will be experienced as more efficient and effortless movement. The muscle tension in your shoulders is drastically reduced. Your breathing is slower and there is a much greater sense of awareness of your body. To your point about mood, think about how your brain must then interpret this new stream of physical information. When do you normally feel such lack of tension, such lightness and freedom?” 

“When I am extremely happy and contented; when the world seems like a wonderful place,” she responded. 

“When you search through the archives of your experiences, the times you experienced such physical ease were also times of very pleasant emotional experiences. The experience of physical ease is then interpreted as emotional ease. Since attention is selective, your peaceful and positive emotional state predisposes you to notice lots of little blessings that you previously would have overlooked. This process becomes very self-reinforcing.”

“Cool,” she said. “Another fascinating anatomy lesson. I’ll call this one The Anatomy of Happiness.” 


  Douglas Nelson is the founder and principal instructor for Precision Neuromuscular Therapy Seminars and president of the 16-therapist clinic BodyWork Associates in Champaign, Illinois. His clinic, seminars, and research endeavors explore the science behind this work. Visit or email him at