On happiness and its appropriateness.


This is a video by my friend shinymetalbrain (she said she was curious what she looked like when exuberant so turned the camera on):

I did a video response of my “happy dance” (which was also recorded while I was in that kind of mood, and which should be useful for my “trying to get at-that-moment displays of emotion for a set of staff-training videos so they can read my body language better”):

I don’t know what her experience has been with professionals (or at least I don’t know the totality of it). But I really did have a psychologist determined to stamp the happy dance thing out of me. He took me to get a fish for his aquarium, and I did the happy dance while squealing “fish” a bunch of times. He chastised me for “inappropriate” displays of happiness. He told me that regular people don’t get that excited over a fish, at least not by the time they were teenagers, and neither should I, nor should I show it because it looked strange.

A different psychologist told me that if I were rich I could get away with these things and be called eccentric, but since I was not rich I would have to learn to act normal. That was… interesting. Especially since the most I ever managed was wearing myself out and still getting called psychotic or autistic or crazy or retarded by random people. If I’m going to get called those things either way I’d rather not wear myself out in the process.

What strikes me as strange is that someone would want to eliminate a happy behavior. I mean, I can understand eliminating some of them. The very common behavior in non-autistic people of joyously slapping me on the leg or back when very happy would be one I’d be very eager to see changed. But running back and forth flapping and squealing is apparently not acceptable unless you just won the lottery or something.

Is it exuberance and happiness themselves that aren’t acceptable? I’m not sure, but I sure wonder. When I filmed this, I was just in a good mood in general, the kind of good mood that makes it nearly impossible to sit still. There wasn’t any event sparking it, it just happens a lot. I don’t see a whole lot of people in that mood most of the time, or if they are they don’t run all over the place. The closest I remember was a girl in college who started dancing around and saying that springtime made her want to frolic and that she didn’t care if she looked like a dork. Maybe it’s looking like a dork people are afraid of. I’d rather be happy and looking like a dork than running around all the time afraid I might look like a dork.

(And what’s wrong with looking like a dork anyway? And why do I suspect that the whole concept of “dorkiness” is intimately tied to neurological unusualness in its various forms?)

Interestingly, I did an abbreviated version of this in front of a geeky non-autistic woman at MIT in response to something she said. She misunderstood me. She thought I was upset about something. Hence another reason for attempting to catalog my body language in realtime (at least for staff — some of the situations are personal enough I probably wouldn’t be comfortable putting them in public, but anything like this running-around-happy thing I might).

I remember confiding in someone on a BBS chat that I sometimes got so happy or excited I had to run around the room and couldn’t sit still. The person said to cultivate that and never forget it and never mind what people say. It was a long time since then before I was doing that very often again — I wasn’t very happy — but I’m noticing in the past few years I’ve done it more and more. And I haven’t forgotten what that person said to me.

I don’t remember what my handle was, or even which BBS it was on, but his handle was Sony. As if that narrows it down. He was the guy whose user description was “A cross between Joe Isuzu and a chipmunk, with busy shirts.” I was the kid who probably bored him silly typing out all my dreams. If he’s reading this, thanks for the advice, and maybe reading this site will give you a clue why I was so, er, annoyingly repetitive sometimes.

I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the idea that it’s inappropriate to be more excited than usual about something ordinary, or to express that excitement in a physical way that doesn’t harm anyone. Someone replied to my video telling me that if there weren’t social rules against this sort of thing, most people would do it. Sounds like one social rule that could use rewriting. Of all the numerous attempts to train me out of doing harmless and innocent things, this was undoubtedly the most illogical.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

53 responses »

  1. I love that kind of mood! I don’t flap or bounce, but I love to spin in place, on one toe- especially if I’m wearing nice hard clunky shoes so I can do it quickly. It’s a dance move I learned as a kid and I’ve forgoten the name, but it’s FUN, and it just expresses that feeling really well. I have named this mood “Squee!” as it just encapsulates it better than “Happy” or “thrilled” (Thrilled implies there has to be a reason for it, Squee doesn’t.) Both of the dogs will bark and bounce and wag their tails when I do it, now, probably because it gets incorporated into some of my training routines when they finally figure out what I’m asking from them and it comes right after a treat jackpot.

  2. My son does big happy dances to. And like you have found other people think hes upset.
    We should be encoraging happy behaviour instead of trying to eliminate it.
    And yes most people would do it if they thought they could! We all want to jump in the air and through our arms about, but we restrain our selves.
    So carry on showing the world you are happy!

  3. Happiness is rather an alien concept to me, you see I was born on a Wednesday.

    My delight is to be miserable, I wonder if my life was worth it sometimes, nought but pain and struggle, but then that is the way of things :)

    Gordon Bennet, the life of the Arnolds, it is like sommat out of a Thomas Hardy novel at times, was any one of us ever happy? andt if we were, where would be the fun in that?

    Well as Derrida never said to Sartre over a pastis or two “life’s a beach and then you die” well never mind sous les paves la plage, cos the plage will be washed away in the tide of global warming never mind how many cobbles you hurl at “les flics”

  4. Oh, yes, I’ve had others frown on my happy dances, too! Its more bouncey and less hand-flappy for me, if I’m standing. If I am sitting, my feet start flapping in a quick kicking motion.

    Hey, a serving of ice cream, a new book, or a visit to a park is enough to get me all bouncey!

    Be Happy ~Anna

  5. and then we recall Julie Andrews bursting out into
    “The hills are alive, with the sound of Music!”

    I second (or third) the motion for unlimited expression of happiness (as long as there is no clear and present danger!) (i.e. my colleague would do the Jig on an elevated floor known to have loose piers under it, good idea, wrong place.)

  6. There’s nothing unacceptable about that kind of behavior except for the fact that people see it as a sign that you are “different.” If you were seriously concerned with passing as a “normal” person, it would be a good idea to suppress it. But why waste the energy? I don’t see any reason why you should suppress behaviors that don’t harm anyone and allow you to express joy.

  7. I think there’s some correlation between looking “cool” and acting unimpressed. Lots of folks use that “I’m not impressed” sort of device to gain “coolness”, and it’s often indulged by folks trying harder to impress them. (You’d think that routine would get old after a while, and folks would just realize that pulling the “I’m not impressed” card is just being a drag.) Perhaps folks who have gotten into the habit of trying to contain themselves, because they’ve so often been shot down by the “cool kids” who are not impressed, are simply embarrassed by people who overtly react to minor happinesses, and they feel compelled to shut those people down before, uhh, the “cool kids” notice them hanging out with them. Or something.

    I got quite a bit of joy out of watching both those videos, and was smiling and giggling and fluttering and squeaking right along with you . . . quietly, of course, ‘cause, y’know, there are people watching. -_-

    Changer, “Squee!” is a fabulous word for that mood! And it would be the perfect word if it didn’t, uhh, evoke just a bit that scene from Deliverance.

  8. Made me laugh, made me smile, made me flap my forearms.

    I was flapping before I realized what I was doing. You’re happy dance reminded me that when I was little I would jump up and down and flap, but I guess it was more or less normal looking… no one told me to stop.

    My ASD kid’s flapping was more “stereotypical” looking. My ASD kid was happy almost all the time and so flapped every day several times a day. These days xe’s more likely to do the a “complex whole body movement” when really happy, and the same movement when sad, but with a smile or a sad face depending on the emotion.

    I loved the videos, anyway. I don’t think I usually have a happy dance like that. I do tense my forearms and wrists and sort of vibrate them side to side with my fists like 7 inches from each other, them like you see little kids doing sometimes. They tighten their muscles and vibrate in one place with a big grin.

  9. My happy dances looks different, but basically it comes down to the same. Happiness gives me a boost of energy and I want to jump, waving with my fists. I’ve learned to do that only when no one is around, because it’s seldom appreciated.

    However, a similar thing is sometimes allowed. I went a few years to Soccer (I live in Europe) and it’s very normal when your team scores a goal, that thousands of people doing all sorts of happy dances at the same time.

  10. Amen, sister.

    Sometimes I’ll be happy at the wrong logical conversational moment and I have to catch myself. Emotions are tough, but happy dances are nice.

    It looks like you won a car on the Price is Right. :)

  11. I have a ‘happy dance’ too – I jump up and down flapping and making strange noises, sometimes just make the noises. I find I’m too embarrassed to let myself do it in front of people outside my family except for my autistic friend (who has his own ‘happy dance’ with flapping and trilling noises).

  12. Joy begets joy. For me. And momentum/energy/strength/alertness/etc. I mostly get into Joy dances in bed, where it is called Jiggy Legs.
    I think you(proverbial) are not allowed to express anything intense that is “out of (social) context”, particularly joy, because it is confusing and uncomfortable for people to try to respond to joy while they are laboring away at joyless social economy which is completely alienated and lacking honesty.

  13. ange:

    I think it’s sad that people now perceive Moosie’s “happy dances” as “weird” because, in seeing your video, I think it’s a delight to see! And, I see why you call it a “happy dance” because it really does look exactly like a dance!

    Of course, as I am safely located far away from those kicking legs … :-)

  14. When I get happy I jump up and down and flap my hands and grin hugely. I’ve been known to do this in response to the discovery that one of my plants is blooming, or understanding a new physics concept, or just when things are going well and I have a moment of intense gratitude. My doing this is one of the things I like most about myself, and one of the things the people that like me like about me.

    It frustrates me that that pyschologist was so focused on making you appear “normal” that he lost sight of how beautiful and human and part of you that dance is. It makes me wonder if he ever really saw any of the beautiful, human, you parts of you, or if he just saw you as a collection of aberrations.

  15. Heh. Yes. I have to constantly tell myself not to get all flappy at work, and not to jump around the store, when one of my clothes-sorting systems is working well and everything’s falling into place… Maybe I need to carry a bit of paper that says, “Stop acting happy! You’re scaring the customers!” Seriously. Also, there’s this funny squeal I make when I’m really, really happy… You hear it from three year olds, but it’s weird coming from somebody who’s 24, I guess.

    This is one of the things I wish people knew about us. That we act “weird” when we’re happy. Because then I could act weird whenever I wanted to, instead of keeping it all inside me when I’m in public.

    Maybe I don’t know what I’m saying, because I don’t know what your life is like; but maybe you’re more free to act the way you want to because you don’t have a job and you’re not expected to act normal nearly as much as I am… I kind of envy that. When you’re always obviously autistic, people seem to expect you to act weird… when you’re an Aspie, people get freaked out because they think you’re psychotic or something, especially if you can do a good NT act for an hour at a time.

    But then, I don’t envy you when you say people say stuff like, “You’re acting happy? Stop it! You’re doing it all wrong!” So maybe we’re even.

    Funny the way we seem to act happy with all of our bodies, and NTs just focus on the faces. Do your aides focus on your face too much? Because your video has got hardly any footage of your face, and mostly of your whole-body expression… Maybe they need to “read” us like you read cats–because cats communicate with the whole body instead of the face and the meow (which apparently is what most people seem to think they communicate with, and then they miss out on everything the cat is saying).

  16. Yes, I’m definitely more free to act this way in some respects, although I know people with jobs who act like this. And realizing how unusual I look has made it easier on an emotional level.

    And I agree with the part about whole-body expression. Especially for things like this. A lot of people do focus excessively on faces and that’s a problem both of body-language-reading experiments on autistic people and of non-autistic people seeing even very emotional autistic people as emotionless or having flat affect.

    (I just caught one weird typo in my reply, if there’s any left I’m on a pretty sedating muscle relaxant and can’t think quite straight.)

  17. A different psychologist told me that if I were rich I could get away with these things and be called eccentric, but since I was not rich I would have to learn to act normal.

    Yeah. That sounds familiar, though I can’t recall if I’ve actually gotten similar advice, or whether it’s just a general attitude I’ve picked up on. But there definitely seems to be a sense among some people that it’s somehow…I don’t know, presumptuous for people who haven’t somehow “earned the right to be weird” to behave in any way that goes outside the norm. Even if acting that way is totally natural for a particular person. It’s like there’s this blanket assumption that everyone has the ability in the first place to easily “map” their responses to standard patterns, and those who don’t are obviously trying to prove something.

    All I can say is, I’ve been way happier since I decided to let go of some of the rigorous self-monitoring programs I developed over the course of my life. Some of that letting-go was triggered by getting to a point where I was so overloaded (at work, etc.) that I couldn’t spare any energy at all for the self-monitoring without losing my ability to work productively. It was really humbling to reach that point and I’ve still not really talked to anyone close to me about what it was like. I fought it for as long as I could (because I can be very stubborn and proud at times), but now I actually feel silly for that, since it seems like my ability to feel joy has increased tenfold since I let myself actually express it in ways that made sense to me.

    Though, apparently I’ve been flapping for years without even really realizing it — even with monitoring, things do slip out from time to time. I am pretty sure my parents have a video of me doing a Happy Dance when I was about 11, and we got a Nintendo Entertainment System at Christmas. And my sister was making fun of some hand movement I did a while back, that I hadn’t even known she’d ever seen me do. My attitude now is along the lines of, “so what if I express exuberance a certain way?” It isn’t hurting anyone, and I think it’s bizarre and wrong to expect people to have to have a bank account of a particular size in order to be able to be themselves!

  18. “What strikes me as strange is that someone would want to eliminate a happy behavior. I mean, I can understand eliminating some of them. The very common behavior in non-autistic people of joyously slapping me on the leg or back when very happy would be one I’d be very eager to see changed. But running back and forth flapping and squealing is apparently not acceptable unless you just won the lottery or something.”

    This reminds me of when I had a very sensetive nerve in my back years ago…and I dreaded anoyone
    touching my back or heaven forbid slapping my back.

    Your joyful dance reminds me of a documentary I saw many years ago of a dance troop in another country, I beieve Ireland…They had a heavy schedule and one day they had an outing together
    in the countryside….and it was beautiful and they spontaneously and without inhibition starting dancing all over the place…It was quite a wonderful expression of pure joy…

    I think the way your body moves in this dance…the pacing part…if you exclude the happiness on your face.and the joyous flapping..might easily be interpreted by NT’s as agitation as pacing usually means you are upset…
    and their respons is to want to fix it….and they
    might miss you are actually happy and expressing this…

  19. Love it!
    I dance like that when I’m furious though. It
    helps me to think. I sing on the streets and make up my own chants. My shrink and parents never got me to stop rocking though they tried.
    I scribble a lot whenever I’m in a social
    situation and happen to have pen and paper.
    I used to chew pens ( that I outgrew). I wore
    a winter jacket for an entire winter once and refused to take it off indoors.
    I don’t mind being loud when I feel like it,
    when I know it’s o.k. and people tell me to shut
    up. I hate that. Part of that is autism and part
    of it is my family because when we have good times
    we get loud.

  20. The whole cool/dorky thing is much like the “you can get away with it if you’re rich” thing; in social terms weird isn’t automatically bad, but a relatively small group of people get to decide when weird is bad or good. It’s one of those complicated social power trip, and for people not eager to win social status, it’s not worth the trouble of trying to become “cool” or forcing yourself not to “look like a dork”.

    The psychiatric focus is the standard “appropriate/inappropriate” worry about expressing emotions. Really, a classic example of how psychiatry sometimes forces people to fit an unjust society (there isn’t any good reason for people to make your life worse because of your happy dance), instead of facing the social injustice.

  21. you made my day! My son Alex does this. We call it his ‘happy dance. He looks exactly like shinymetalbrain. We NEVER ask him to stop. This NT wishes I could feel that kind of unrestricted happiness.

  22. Hmmm… that’s very nice, i like it!

    Yep, i’ve had that feeling, and even sometimes have (what more mellow people might think of as)exaturated expressions of it. Like, this one time, i got so excited, i was winded, just becuase my favorite singer was on tv. Ok, so maybe in that case, it was the event that triggered it, but still, different reason, different reaction, but same idea. And, sometimes, i do get the urge to just sing and dance- then again, the songs in my head often entice that.

    Anyway, autistic or not (i’m not), any honest person (even mellow/reserved/shy) person can relate to that feeling, regardless of how it is expressed. So, the fact that some people (particularly in the med. profession) fail to empathize w/ that equals utter small-mindedness on thier part. However, i must stress that small-mindedness and/or lack-of-imagination doesn’t always equal carelessness. I have found (from experiance) that most people in general, and doctors in particular, mean well/may care…they just don’t always DO well, by others.

    That said, i do think the line in the post about what one psychologist had said about rich people being able to act however they want, and being thought of as eccentric, as opposed to something more specifically negative, was quite clever (in a sort of unfortunate way).

    speaking of clever, it was a good idea of you to make these videos to help your staff better understand you. Kudos to that.

  23. Loved seeing your dance(s). My son and his also-autistic friend are both six years old, and just last week I noticed them both (in separate instances) doing what I thought were happy dances. Since we are still figuring out the two-way communication I only had my gut to tell me that they looked happy (in both cases it was when people they liked arrived to visit them). After reading/seeing your example I feel even more cheerful to think that they were expressing cheerfulness, too. We’ve always got room for more happiness.

  24. I used to take a 15 year old bowling who did a happy dance like this, it used to brighten my day when he showed he was enjoying himself. His parents were using some kind of ABA program, and would punish him for rocking or jumping. I don’t know much about ABA, but it convinced me it was a pretty abusive system.

  25. “If you’re happy and you know it, flap your hands…”
    “If you’re happy and you know it, spin around…”
    “If you’re happy and you know it, run around…”

    (A song I picked up at Autreat 2007)

  26. (without reading any comments, so I may be repeating..)

    about people having a problem with others being *unusually* happy,

    I’ve pondered this, too, and it seems that it’s like the way most people go around trying to fit in and act similarly to each other.. they’re uncomfortable with the unfamiliar or unexpected, just like if someone were to get expressively unhappy about something. They respond with tension inside, and social uniformity is the regulator that prevents *confusing*unexpected*unusual* experiences with others. I believe that most people very rarely, or never feel a truly exuberant or blissful state. To witness it in another, their response is incredulous, disbelief, denial – and they feel like there must be something *wrong* with the other person for them to feel and act that way…

    because *why* would they otherwise? ;)

    Almost as bad as if happiness itself were disapproved of, but they don’t theoretically believe that.

    Enjoying your blog as always!

  27. I love both those happy dances.

    With people I don’t know it can be hard to judge happy-flappy from distressed-flappy. They’re both dealing with big emotional energy, so it can be difficult to tell whether this is good or bad if you don’t know someone.

  28. Jump around, whirl and dance, I consider it my cosmic right! Isn’t weird that so many professionals are threatened by it. Why else would motivate them to tell you to stop your behavior? I don’t believe that they were trying to save your from pain and ridicual from anyone. I think it’s deeper and more twisted. They don’t get to jump up and down with glee, because they are professionals and someone might not take them seriously, so if they don’t get to flap and whirl, no one gets to flap and whirl.
    Got to crow, got to fly.

  29. Well, that particular guy was a power-tripper, too. So he probably just enjoyed the chance to influence, as much as anything.

    He also tried to get in the way of any friendships anyone tried to form with me. There was a girl there who had started being nice to me. He told me she was only being nice to me because we had to live in a place like that, and in the outside world she’d never take someone like me out dancing with her or anything because my social skills were too poor.

    I’ve since learned that people who try to interfere with genuine happiness and genuine friendships are best avoided, there’s something really wrong with them one way or another. Unfortunately, at the time I had no choice but to see that guy (I tried to run away or get sent away but neither one worked).

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  31. My thought is along lines of what Evonne said (09/17) about worry over whether one looks “cool”. Seems that those who express joy are targeted by those who are expressing the opposite, cynical disdain. Showing pleasure is considered worthy of mockery, which coerces people into trying to hide or deny the enthusiasm they are experiencing. As if those who don’t care or who dislike most things are smarter & more worldly than those who find something appealing & exciting about life. I remember making some of these kind of faulty assumptions as student: pep rallies, for instance. Couldn’t imagine how anyone could have such a thing as “school spirit”, it felt fake so I was jaded towards the displays of hype. False (artificial) enthusiasm makes it harder to discern “the real thing” or take that seriously & trust it as being genuine when it happens. Have grown out of being cynical as default mode, though-feel how short life is & how important it is to find what’s “good” according to each individual.

    This is a teensy little box in which to write my comment-see no preview function with which to review-guess I’ll just post…yikes.

  32. Oh. Yet another thing I do that is an “autistic thing.” I’m still learning. :) Don’t NTs do this??? Serious question, as it never occurred to me that everyone wouldn’t do this if happy. My happy dance involves springing up and down in one place and doing the happy squeal and clapping or rubbing my hands together or flapping them a bit, and sometimes saying “Yay! Yay!” I thought everyone in their 40s did the happy squeal. I guess I am wrong because a few months ago someone told me I was “like a little kid.”

  33. When someone emotes intensely near me, I can’t help but be highly stimulated. Just seeing really emotional body language is enough to sort of inject emotional energy into me, and sometimes that can be quite jarring, even if it’s happy energy, depending on my own mood. If everyone went around emoting intensely on a regular basis, I think I might get over-stimulated and not want to be around people. So, the social rule that encourages people to feel emotions without expressing them in a highly noticeable way, especially in public, is useful for me because it lets me tolerate being in public or around lots of people more of the time.

  34. I’m NT (or, if not quite NT — where does a person with ADD fit in — then at least I’m non-autistic). In public, or among people who don’t know me well, or in professional settings, I’m generally “politely restrained” in expressing happiness. But if I’m by myself or with someone who I know will be very tolerant like my partner, then I get more expressive — for example, when the last Harry Potter book was coming out, I would chant “Harry Potter! Harry Potter! Harry Potter!” and clap or wave my hands. Or sometimes if I’m really excited about something (and in private, or with just my partner) I might do a sort of a dance. My NT partner can also be pretty expressive of excitement too. We don’t flap or rock, but we express it in other ways. I don’t think I do a squeal exactly, but I guess maybe chanting a word associated with whatever I’m excited about (Harry Potter, fer instance :-) ) could be a sort of a verbal equivalent of that.

    pd, I think the only thing that makes your behavior like that of a “little kid” is if you do it in public rather than in private … maybe there are NTs who don’t do any of this stuff even in private, but I’m not one of them (unless you were talking specifically about things like rocking or flapping). If there ARE NTs who really are that restrained even in private, then personally I consider that a real shame! Everyone should have a “happy dance” :-)

  35. ADD isn’t NT. I think the term used for anyone who isn’t NT is neuroatypical, and anyone who isn’t autistic is allistic. ADD would be allistic neuroatypical, or maybe cousin (because it does overlap with autism).

  36. Thanks, Ettina — I’ll have to try to remember those terms. I know that, although some of the experiences Amanda has described are outside of my frame of reference, others (like making a phone call in 70 steps :-) ) resonnate with my experience with having ADD.

  37. Wow, I had to comment because I do all the things that andreashettle mentioned! As far as I know, I’m NT and allistic (thanks Ettina for that word!; I have a panic disorder, but that’s it as far as mental complexity) – I get weird looks from people because I sing to myself in public, and when I’m terribly surprised I make a sort of meowing sound, and when I’m very happy I will bounce up and down and clap my hands. (I also picked up, from an ex, the habit of pumping my arms and chanting “yes yes yes!” when I have triumphed at something. That’s less frequent.) And, of course, do the Snoopy dance a la Xander on Buffy.

    wow. yay!

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  40. I have noticed I feel happiness less intensely if I restrain myself from flapping and squealing (as I do in public, out of fear). That’s one thing about the disabled youth group I attend that excites me a lot – I feel safe to stim freely. Also, even though most of the others wouldn’t really be called autistic, their body language is often more readable than most people, and one effect is greater emotion-contagion. Since the others are usually having fun as well, this amplifies my own happiness.

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