Why Do Words Make Us Happy?


Words can impact our mood, and we can use that reality to hack how we're feeling. In mindfulness, when we wish others well through Lovingkindness, words are integral to the practice. Why not try it right now? Bring to mind someone you love, and then wish them well. Say,

May you be happy.

May you be healthy and safe.

May you be at ease and free from harm.


I don't know anyone who feels worse after doing that.


The flipside of being able to improve your mood using words is that words can upset you. Their impact can be devastating. Both of these shifts inside you come from the same idea—words have power. But it's just an idea; it's not true until you believe it, and even then, it's something you believe, which doesn't mean it's true.


Words aren't positive or negative until we've decided they are. That can work for us and against us.


If you have a history with a word—perhaps one from your childhood and maybe even it's associated with some form of trauma, bullying, or teasing, you likely have a reaction to that word that other people might not have. That, in itself, is evidence that the impact of words is context-dependent in both the individual sense and the societal/cultural sense.


There are words that have changed meaning, over time. Bully was once a term of endearment, awe referred to fear, and terrific meant terror-inducing (here's more on such words). Net message? Words mean what we agree they mean on a macro level, and they have a feeling (or not) on the micro level that may or may not have anything to do with the macro level.


And then there's tone and the intention of the speaker or other positioning of the word. Tone affects how a word sounds and perception and interpretation of the listener dictate how that combination of word and sound is received—how it lands.


This whole conversation reminds me of The Placebo Effect. It demonstrates the power of belief. That power can only go so far, in that it has been shown to make people feel better but has not been shown to cure anyone. But that's what I'm interested in, here. We can be made to feel better if we believe.


The downside to this, clearly, is that the baggage that we give words can be destructive. I completely understand where the baggage comes from and I'm not denying anyone's pain over words, some of which have been used as daggers, for centuries. I'm only pointing out the source of the pain.


“If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.” — Marcus Aurelius


Cultivating the ability to experience words as they are, and not be poisoned by how they are spoken or your own beliefs about them, is similar to what we do with emotions. We acknowledge them and our experience of them in the moment, and then we see them for what they are as we reflect. It's equanimity we seek in mindfulness. Seeing the emptiness and being aware of what we fill it with and how that affects us.


May ease find you.

mm