Dr. Dale Anderson’s background includes extensive training in surgery, family practice, emergency medicine and the Stanislavsky method for actors.
No, he’s not a frustrated Broadway star. In fact, other than for a couple of roles in school plays 60-plus years ago, he’s never done any acting. At least, not on stage.
But every day he acts happy, which helps keep him healthy.
“A happy body produces endorphins,” he said. “Endorphins are part of the opioid family. That’s the same as opium and morphine. We have our own internal pharmacy that is always open and has no copay.”
A retired clinical assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, Anderson has focused on studying and promoting the connection between a happy outlook and a healthy body. He’s convinced that we have the ability to make ourselves happy — or, more to the point, make our bodies react as if we were happy — and, thereby, make ourselves feel better.
“By learning to act as if you are happy, healthy and vital, even when you don’t feel that way, you can change your body’s chemistry and begin to feel the way you act,” he argues.
The flip side, acting unhappy and making ourselves unhealthy, can happen, too, he warned. “The surly bird gets the germ,” he said.
(Anderson is a master of the pun, a verbal machine gun throwing out terms such as the “individu-well” and the “well-derly,” along with directives to “inner-tain” yourself for “the health of it.”)
His interest in acting happy for better health stems from treating a patient who made him unhappy because he couldn’t help her.
“She was an actress who came to me complaining of aches and pains,” he said. “We tried everything from physical therapy to chiropracty, but the pain didn’t get any better. It’s very hard for a physician when you can’t do anything to help.”
She mentioned that her current role involved playing someone who was angry. A few weeks later, that play closed and she switched to a role that was upbeat. “All her aches and pains went away,” Anderson said. “I started reading everything I could about method acting.”
He conducted a survey of the Twin Cities acting community. The performers who described themselves as method actors — an approach in which the actor makes a physical and emotional connection with the character — 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.
Actors needing a paycheck can’t insist on playing only happy roles, of course. But the rest of us can, he said.
“Theater does not take place only on a stage,” he said. “There is the theater of everyday life. There is a stage on the street, a stage in your home. Everybody’s an actor — Shakespeare told us that.”
Looking on the bright side
At 81 (“and a half; when you get to 80, you get to start counting half years, and when I get to 90, I’m going to start counting quarters”), Anderson radiates an exuberance that belies his age and his medical records. His family has a history of serious heart problems, and he suffers from Type 2 diabetes.
“When I was in medical school, I was told that I’d never live out of my 40s,” he said. “But your genes are not your destiny. That’s one of my messages.”
A childhood accident caused nerve damage to his hand that eventually forced him to give up his dream of being a surgeon. But he refused to let that slow him down.
“My scars didn’t do me in,” he said. “I had to overcome them, and the best way to overcome them is to be around people you enjoy and to have fun.”
He shares his own setbacks to rebut the argument that only people who don’t have problems can act happy.
“Pollyanna got a bad rap,” he said of the fictitious character whose name has become a cliché for being illogically optimistic. “She never said that everything bad was good. When bad things happened, she said, ‘Is there anything in this that I can find that is good?’ ”
Being optimistic is one of the keys to acting happy, he said. “I’ve always been optimistic. My parents were great; there was a lot of laughter in our house. That’s not to say there weren’t serious things going on, but my parents were always positive.”
There’s still a lot of laughter in his house in Roseville. He sat at the kitchen table one morning with his wife, Annie, a retired psychotherapist who is every bit as upbeat and energetic as he is. They sounded like early morning radio DJs trading one-liners.
“I call her my Little Endorphin Annie,” he quipped.
She nodded in mock agreement: “He was so morose and so down, and then I came into his life.”
So he proposed marriage. “She said, ‘Sure, anything for a laugh.’ ”
Gaining serious support
There’s an increasing body of science supporting Anderson’s theories about the connection between happiness and body chemistry.
This month, an immunologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, reported that happiness alters immune cells. “We’ve found that happiness can remodel our cellular composition,” Dr. Steven Cole told the Atlantic. “It’s no question that the mind and immune system are intrinsically linked.”
In addition, a study of 5,100 people released by the University of Illinois in January found that those who described themselves as optimists were twice as likely to be in good cardiovascular health as pessimists. They also were less likely to be obese, had lower rates of smoking and were “livelier in general.”
“More and more and more people are coming to see that this is scientific,” Anderson said.
Arden Moore, a columnist for Prevention magazine, met Anderson when the publication was doing a series of articles with doctors. She was so impressed by his philosophy that she collaborated with him on a 2002 book, “Never Act Your Age.”
“He lives it,” Moore said of Anderson’s act-happy philosophy. “Convincing the editors at Rodale [publishers of Prevention] that you’re legitimate is not easy. I’ve checked him out. He’s the real deal.”
When it comes to acting happy, Anderson practices what he preaches — and “practice” is the operative word.
“You have to do what an actor does: rehearse, rehearse, rehearse until the part becomes natural,” he said.
One of the techniques he suggests is looking inward and giving yourself a pep talk every morning. It doesn’t have to be about practical matters. Or even honest, for that matter. The more fun you make it, the better, he demonstrated, flexing his biceps as he gushed: “OK, Dale, when the Medicare Chippendales come looking for new recruits, you’re in!”
Moore has witnessed another of his favorite practices: the daily laugh. “He sounds like a car starting on a cold Minnesota morning,” she said. “He goes, ‘Ha.’ Then, ‘Ha, ha.’ Then, ‘Ha, ha, ha.’ And then he ties it all together: ‘Ha, ha, ha, ha …’”
Anderson is the founder of Act Happy Day, which is on the second Monday in March (it’s March 9 this year). But this is not just a one-day-a-year deal for him. He gives speeches at holistic healing conferences and makes regular presentations at local theaters and coffeehouses.
“We want people to learn the act of happiness and take it into their homes,” he said. “We want to start a happy-demic.”