In this edition of the WBI/JCC Positive Psychology Hour, Kelly McGonigal, PhD, a leading positive psychology author and researcher, spoke with Caroline Kohles, curator and host of the series, about how movement can support well-being and social connection.

Highlights from the Conversation
Caroline: Today, we’re going to be talking about maximizing your joy through movement with Kelly McGonigal. Kelly is the author of The Joy of Movement, and she’s returning to the Positive Psychology Hour today to remind us all that movement can be a powerful way to alleviate feelings of loneliness and social isolation. It can really help us create connections. At this time of year when many people have given up on their New Year’s resolutions or perhaps didn’t even make any, and are struggling with a lack of motivation, time constraints, feeling overwhelmed, maybe even anxiety, learn how small doses of movement can improve our mood, boost our happiness, improve our social connections, and have a lasting impact on our health.

We’re going to discover the six joyful movements that we can do to music to enhance positive emotions. And this presentation is actually part of the JCC Books That Changed My Life Festival, so Kelly will discuss her favorite books and the joy that comes from studying the science of movement. 

Kelly, in relationship to health, we know it’s good for us to get moving. And yet how do we do it, so we don’t create aversion and shame but we don’t stay on the couch and be lazy?
Kelly: Well, first of all, we don’t use language like that. Being on the couch does not equate to being lazy. That’s not reality. There are lots of reasons to be on the couch, and laziness is probably not the main reason people are on a couch. There’s other stuff, too—pain, fatigue, time scarcity. One of the most important things is to find motivation that feels really connected to your values, and the roles and relationships that are most important to you. We’re talking about movement today, but this would be true for any change, if you’re going to make a change in your life.

First, really get clear, is this behavior something that does reflect my values? Not every behavior that other people would celebrate or tell you that you should do is necessarily going to be the most important change that you can make in your life. So you start with sincere inquiry—is it possible that being more physically active is going to allow me to enjoy my life more, be the kind of grandparent, parent, partner, manager, activist, whatever your roles are? Will being more physically active support me in those roles and relationships? Will it make me feel about myself the way that I want to feel about myself? That’s the gut check that I would encourage for anyone thinking about making any kind of resolution or behavior change. Why invest your energy in something that doesn’t fulfill a purpose like that? So if that’s your motivation, you’re going to be much more likely to find activities that are actually going to give you a direct experience of some kind of joy, whether it’s being in community or being in nature. For me, it’s being connected to music and moving my body to music.

Maybe there’s a form of movement for you that lets you compete, or lets you play, or lets you feel like you’re in a moment of flow, that feels spiritual. There are all these ways that movement can give us an intrinsically valued experience of ourselves and of life. But if you’re thinking of movement as something you should do, because you’re lazy, or because you need to lose weight, or you’re trying to prevent a disease, there’s actually a lot of great research showing that [these are the] motivations that are most likely to lead to giving up, or not even getting started, and not getting the maximum benefits.

The motivations that are most likely to lead people to discover a deeply rewarding relationship with physical activity is social connection, feeling like you’re part of a group that shares your goals or that it gives you an opportunity to spend time with people who you enjoy, and personal mastery—having a meaningful, challenging goal. I want to learn this. I want to be able to do this. I want to go on a trip and be able to do the hike with the rest of my family, whatever that is. There’s some kind of meaningful challenge or growth and then also the direct feeling: I enjoy it, I feel like my best self, it gives me energy, it helps me feel less stressed, doing it is better than not doing it. So that’s the type of motivation I would say to start from.

Caroline: Amazing! Let’s actually talk about what happens chemically in the brain and the body, the mind-body connection. When we start moving, there’s a change in neurochemistry, right?
Kelly: So let’s say we’re getting up or stretching, we’re going for a push or a walk, whatever it is that we’re doing, immediately, your brain will start to release chemicals, including dopamine and adrenaline, that give you a sense of what we refer to as embodied optimism. It’s like hope, with energy, it’s outward-directed hope. It’s letting me engage with life, with energy and hope. It’s a change in your brain chemistry. But it can be very fast, because you’ve gone from not having to use energy to your heart rate increases a little bit, you’re breathing maybe a little more fully or deeply, you’re using some subset of your muscles requiring energy. And that’s called the “feel better effect.” And most people will experience it from very small doses of movement, that meet their body where they are. One of my favorite things to do is to put on a song, and then do a form of movement that feels right in that moment, whether it’s a few stretches, whether it’s dancing, sometimes I like to shadowbox or sometimes I have to put away laundry, which is also a physical activity. But when you put the right song on, it also can feel more empowering. So that’s the first level of change in the brain. But when you do these other forms of movement that require more, or that add some of these extra joys, these human joys—adding music, or adding nature, or adding moving with other people, in a context where you feel supported, or you feel like you belong, you’re learning something challenging and meaningful, and you feel yourself in that place just outside your comfort zone, but you feel yourself getting stronger or learning and growing.

You get all these other brain chemicals too, endorphins and endocannabinoids, and sometimes oxytocin, and all of these brain chemicals, they increase both self-confidence and trust in others, trust in the world. What an amazing blend of brain chemicals, that meaningful physical activity, or connected physical activity—it could be connected to nature, it could be connected to your breath, to a sense of flow, it could be connected to community and other people. But [when] there’s a real connection in the movement experience itself, there are brain chemicals that basically say, you matter, you can do this, you’re not alone, you can have some level of trust or faith in the people around you or in the world itself. And that’s why I think that movement is such great psychological and spiritual medicine, when you find that activity that’s not about, you know, making your body more acceptable to other people. 

Caroline: Sharon Salzberg talks about lovingkindness and lovingkindness meditation, and it reminds me of something that you’re saying, which is that we really are interconnected. It sounds like you’re saying that [feeling of] interconnectivity is possible with movement, too.
Kelly: I’m very interested in how people can find connection and overcome feelings of isolation or loneliness. But one thing that is true for movement as well as for social connection is, you have to actually do it. It’s not an inside job, it requires turning outward and reaching out, looking for that place to either show up virtually or in person looking for that human to actually help, right? We don’t stay at the level of May you be happy in our heads, we then use that that motivation, that foundation to now engage with the world and say, Okay, from this motivation of lovingkindness, what can I actually do in this moment to connect or help or make somebody else happy? And so I feel like movement is such a great way to develop that mindset, which is, there’s a lot of things we can do internally to try to deal with something like anxiety, or loneliness, or despair. But at a certain point, going into ourselves, and trying to fix things internally, is not as effective as putting ourselves in a context where we can have direct experiences that support what we’re looking for, and that we have an opportunity to contribute. So that’s another one of those examples of holding opposites. And it’s why it’s why I love both meditation and participation. We don’t talk about them going together enough, that you can do all the meditation in the world, but then you have to find the place to participate. That’s what really allows the fruits of meditation to to flourish.
Caroline: And isn’t it also true, that we need to face the anxiety, we need to actually need to do the thing that we’re afraid of. So we’re not teaching ourselves that the aversion is the solution.
Kelly: One of the things that I realized early on, is if I set the default rule to avoid things that make me anxious, I would have a very small life. And I would simply be strengthening the habit of choosing fear, even if I thought I was protecting myself from discomfort, or shame, physical pain, or whatever I thought I was avoiding. By listening to anxiety, I was actually choosing the experience of anxiety, [which] made it more likely I’d feel it again. And I would cut myself off from some of the things I might have gained by engaging with things that cause anxiety, and were also meaningful. And I also have learned how to make meaning out of the things that weren’t inherently meaningful. That I could choose to make meaning out of something I didn’t want to do. But I had to endure just because I couldn’t find a way out of it. And if you do that, like on a plane with turbulence—there’s nothing inherently meaningful about turbulence, but I learned from that experience that I can just tolerate things that I can’t control and don’t find comfortable. That’s a meaning that I can apply in other situations.

Last summer, when I was going through some health tests, and I was having an MRI, they gave me that panic button—if this is too much for you, you can press the panic button and we’ll get you out of there. And I remember thinking, oh, wouldn’t that be nice in the rest of my life, but I realized there have been so many situations I’ve been in where I trained myself just stay put when I didn’t like what was happening. And maybe I have thoughts going on in my mind about what it means and worrying about the future, but I learned how to stay put and be with that. And I remember thinking even in that moment, even though there was a lot of fear connected to the MRI, I remember being like, oh, I’ve trained for this, I’m not going to need that panic button. And it felt kind of nice to acknowledge that.

Caroline: We really learned from the pandemic that humans do need one another, we do need that connection. At the beginning of the pandemic, some people thought, Oh, well, this is great. We don’t need to get together anymore. We can just be on Zoom. But there’s something else right? That is an element that is missing when we can’t physically be together. What’s happening when there’s an exchange, and there’s the smell, there’s the seeing, there’s the three-dimensionality.
Kelly: For a lot of people, Zoom is wonderful, right? It takes away some things that cause social anxiety, it takes away some of the challenges to connections. So I understand that for many people, it actually still is the preferred form of connection. This is an amazing vehicle for for genuine connection. I need physical, person-to-person connection. I like to feel the energy of other people, both in terms of empathy and shared joy. There’s something about being in the physical presence of other people in small doses for introverts. That is, it’s a necessary antidote to being confined in a mind and a body that produces a lot of internal suffering. So it’s always about balancing needs and challenges. But I often find myself encouraging people to find that way to go out and interact, that gives you that felt sense of shared presence when it’s possible.
Caroline: Barbara Fredrickson was doing a research study on how our interaction with strangers, like when we say hello to somebody across the street, how that can impact our chemistry, that human connection—looking at people, seeing people, exchanging a smile, exchanging some kind of a greeting. I was in France this summer, and I was surprised by how much everywhere you go, you say hello, you say goodbye. It’s a very courteous culture. And that had a different feeling. I had joie de vivre in my heart when I was there.
Kelly: That’s a particular kind of joy I’m really interested in. And one of the main triggers of it is an unexpected connection with a stranger. It’s like you said, if you do not ever have interactions with strangers, you are cut off from that particular elicitor of joy. And I think I’m really interested in in the choices that we can make that create a readiness for moments of spontaneous connection or meaning in that way. So it could be as simple as making eye contact with strangers in environments where that seems appropriate.
Caroline: We also have to talk about music, because I know it’s a passion of yours. I recently interviewed several amazing musical therapists. While they’re musicians, it’s not about necessarily playing the music, it’s about listening to the emotion of the person, and then playing to that emotion. And I thought that was fascinating. [You said] sometimes you’ll put on a song that matches or mirrors or amplifies what you’re feeling. So do we have an intuitive way of doing this, and it is a way to mitigate the anxiety also, by listening to the emotion and playing with that, with sound?
Kelly: I was actually talking to a music therapist about this, too, because I was trying to develop this really as a self-compassion practice. With self-compassion, psychologists typically talk of it as having a few different steps or components. One is you have to recognize whatever pain or emotion you’re feeling is real, and have some kind of mindful awareness of it, curiosity about it, let yourself feel it. You also need to have a sense that you aren’t the only one who’s ever experienced this, you’re not alone. And it doesn’t isolate you from others, it actually connects you to others. And then the third is a kind of self-kindness, being able to say something to yourself that is encouraging or supportive, being able to do something or make a choice that is supportive or encouraging, to take care and also to mentor yourself.

I think music is a great opportunity to do this. And in music therapy, often they encourage you to start where you are, and find a piece of music that reflects what you’re feeling—if you’re feeling sad, to listen to a piece of music that expresses sadness. And that can often create a context where you can mindfully feel your own emotion but because you’re listening to somebody else play sad music, say sad words, it is impossible to not know that you aren’t alone. Music is often this amazing gift of common humanity. The moment you listen to it, you know, this is part of human experience. That’s why there are sad songs or songs about grief, or songs about anger, whatever it is that you’re feeling. There are a lot of songs actually about anxiety now, a lot of young artists are going to talk about that and addiction and shame and all of that. So you get that common humanity.

But then in music therapy, they would say, Okay, now what would be like an an antidote to that? What would be an encouraging message, a song that you need to hear right now? I literally have on my wall right here a list of things that people need to hear: You’re stronger than you know, you’re not alone, you’re loved, life is worth living, things can get better, it’s possible to feel joy even in difficult times, and on and on. Like, what’s a song that would remind you of something that you need to hear? And that is such a great self-compassion practice, to go through the full cycle of acceptance and mindfulness and common humanity. And finally, listening to something that you need to hear and giving yourself that message through music. It can feel like the music itself is a supportive friend, understanding and taking care of you. And then of course, you can do that with your movement too, because there are movements that express feeling and can even amplify all of this.

Caroline: What you’re talking about right now is a little bit like what you were saying with before, that it can’t just be done internally, we have to go outside, right? We can’t just feel everything and work on ourselves inside, we have to practice it. One of the reasons I might not want to move is because I want to try to avoid feeling that. But it sounds like you’re saying no, you actually have to invite it in. You have to invite the feeling and then do something to get into action.
Kelly: When I’m feeling sad. I actually don’t want to listen to a sad song. I I like to go right to something that is music that acknowledges pain, but also has the hope embedded in it. We all have to titrate for ourselves. So for example, if you’re highly empathic, you listen to a song that has emotion in it, you are going to catch that emotion, it’s going to amplify it. So there’s an interesting thing when it comes to opening ourselves to feeling what we’re feeling, there’s also an ability to stay grounded in something bigger than the emotion, that just sweeps you away. That’s why in meditation, people often start with stability meditations. Because in order to open ourselves to whatever we’re feeling, you have to be grounded in something that’s big enough to hold that, whether it’s your feet on the floor, your breath, a sense of the present moment. But I do think that this is part of the process. And then we open to what we’re feeling. And also we find a way to navigate through to something that feels like a healing antidote, or an opposite that we want to be able to hold. I mean, it really comes back to the question that you started this whole conversation with that, often the thing that is the medicine to us, psychologically, or spiritually, is the thing that is true, even though we also are lonely, or we’re in pain, or we’re feeling despair about the state of the world, there’s something else that we can invite into that, that reality, that feels like an opposite, that can also be true. And music therapy practice is a good example of that.
Caroline: It really sounds to me like hope is an important part of your work.
Kelly: So hope can mean a lot of different things. But I like the idea of hope being the ability to imagine a future that is worth living, either your own or a future for others. That gives rise to a desire to either to keep living or to keep investing in life, or to stay tuned, right? I mean, it’s the opposite of the withdrawal instinct that says, There’s nothing I can do. There’s nothing worth living for. Nothing will ever change. And hope is not a conviction that everything’s going to turn out but it’s this broad sense of possibility. When you ask people what actually gives them hope, it’s often about paying attention to the world, and being able to see the good. And this is something that we can strategically train ourselves to do, to turn our attention to what is good or beautiful, or what inspires laughter and meaning. And that gives rise to hope. Because anything that signals an inherent value to life, and that it still exists in whatever chaotic moment we’re in, that gives rise to hope spontaneously.
[Back to movement], most people are not going to be able to be physically active all day long. There really are two strategies. One is to choose movement for a sustained period of time, every day, if you can, and sustained could be 15 minutes, it could be an hour, it could be longer than that if it’s an activity that you can endure and enjoy for longer, but every day to look for like a period of the day that is dedicated to movement. Because that’s when you often have the opportunity to choose meaning or community, or connection to nature. So look for that, because you’re gonna get so much out of that. And then also to give yourself movement breaks. So I often I will think of the length of a song as a great thing to do. And if your life allows for it, either as a caregiver, you can do it with someone you’re caring with caring for it, you can do it. Sometimes it’s work breaks, but to put on a three-minute song and just do something, even if it’s like, I gotta go deliver something and go climb stairs [while] listening to a song that you love. 
Kelly McGonigal, PhD

Kelly McGonigal, PhD

Kelly is a psychologist who specializes in understanding the mind-body relationship and harnessing the power of community. Named as an Oprah Magazine visionary in 2020, she is the author of The Upside of Stress, The Joy of Movement, and The Willpower Instinct, and her TED Talk, “How to Make Stress Your Friend,” is one of the most viewed of all time.