It’s almost like you’re outsmarting your brain: Compounding a growing field of research in psychology, a new study finds that when people walk with a happier, more upright gait, they cause themselves to actually start feeling happier.

If these findings seem backward, you’re not alone. For decades, psychologists have understood that our body language and facial features respond to our internal emotions. How we feel upstairs translates into how we behave as social animals. But then came along a theory that said our emotions can also be an effect of our behaviors. We don’t just fake it 'til we make it, as the Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy has said. We fake it 'til we become it.

So far, brief nonverbal displays (as Cuddy calls them in her seminal 2013 study on the matter) have allowed people to channel their inner Wonder Woman or James Dean, in an effort to muster up some extra confidence or unaffected cool. Standing like Wonder Woman for two minutes, for instance, with your hands on your hips and feet apart, has been found to raise testosterone levels and cut cortisol (the stress hormone) from your body. The latest study adds happiness into this mix.

Subjects were shown a list of words that were both positive and negative, such as “pretty,” “anxious,” and “afraid.” Afterward, they hopped on a treadmill and were told to walk. In front of them was a screen, which displayed a gauge that moved either left or right as the subjects’ gait got progressively more upright (happy) or slumped over (sad). None of the subjects were told what made the gauge move.

However, according to Nikolaus Troje, study co-author and senior fellow at Queens University, “they would learn very quickly to walk the way we wanted them to walk.”

After the subjects had finished walking, they took a follow-up test that challenged them to recall as many words from the initial list as possible. While those subjects who had walked with more depressed posture recalled more words overall, those who walked with a happier posture recalled more positive words. Likewise, those with a depressed style remembered more negative ones. To Troje and his colleagues, this was evidence that assuming a happier posture helped create happier people.

“As social animals we spend so much time watching other people, and we are experts at retrieving information about other people from all sorts of different sources,” Troje said.

This is true even when we don’t know we’re retrieving information. One of the biggest breakthroughs in psychological research, in fact, hinges on this principle. It’s called priming, and it lets people like Troje and Cuddy run experiments that peer into people’s psyches without overstepping any ethical boundaries. Scientists can’t make people depressed, but they can test how many negative words people remember as a proxy.

A famous study in 1996, for example, found people walk down a hallway at a slower rate when they’ve been primed with words related to old age. The new study suggests that if the same people had been told to write down the words they were primed with, they’d remember more of the old age-related ones. And that step forward is important for Troje, because it means there’s a clinical significance in helping people overcoming mood disorders.

“If you can break that self-perpetuating cycle,” he says, of behavior embodying emotion that is itself a reflection of behavior, “you might have a strong therapeutic tool to work with depressive patients.” For people who don’t suffer from clinical depression, consider walking with your shoulders back more often. Or, if you don’t mind getting weird looks from strangers, fix a pen between your teeth. You might look ridiculous, but at least you’ll be happy and smiling.

Source: Michalak J, Rohde K, Troje N.  How we walk affects what we remember: Gait modifications through biofeedback change negative affective memory bias. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry. 2014.