When we’re happy, the corners of our mouths move out and up, our cheeks lift, and the skin around our eyes crinkles. And researchers now say that process can be reversed: force the muscles of the face into a smile and it can make you feel a little happier, according to a report published in Nature Human Behavior.
The idea that facial expressions might influence our emotional experience, a concept known as the facial feedback hypothesis, has been long debated by psychologists. The new study, an international collaboration of social scientists, appears to prove that even when people are just posing with a smile, they feel happier.
The mechanics of how smiling might make us feel happier aren’t yet known, said the study’s lead author, Nicholas Coles, a research scientist at Stanford University. One possible explanation is that “if you activate a smile the peripheral nervous system tells the rest of the system that happiness is happening and it tries to catch up,” Coles said.
It does seem to be clear, however, that when people’s facial muscles come together to create a smile, even if they’re not thinking about smiling, something happens through the body-mind connection that results in the sensation of happiness, Coles said. The effect isn’t strong enough to overcome something intense like depression, but it provides useful insight into what emotions are and where they come from, he added.
To explore whether smiling could bring on feelings of happiness, Coles and his colleagues from labs across the globe recruited 3,878 volunteers from 19 countries who were randomly assigned to three groups, each of which took a different approach to producing a facial expression that looked like a smile.
One group was shown images of an actor smiling and told to mimic what was in the picture, another group was told to hold a pen in their mouths either with their teeth or lips — teeth holders ended up with something like a smile — and the third group got a list of instructions telling them how to configure the muscles of their face, which unbeknownst to the volunteers produced something like a smile.
Both mimicking a smile and twisting the face into a smile-like visage prompted feelings of happiness. The pen-in-teeth method — not so much.
“The biggest limitation of the study is we don’t know how this would work in the real world,” Coles said. “We don’t know if it would work if the smile is an intentional act. We’re not sure what would happen If you’re smiling because some psychologist told the media you should.”
It’s a question Coles hopes to investigate in future research.
In the meantime, “smiling in hopes it will make you feel happier is probably worth a shot,” Coles said. “It’s not going to cost you anything and maybe it will work. But you shouldn’t see this as a substitute for therapy.”
Coles wasn’t sure how the research might apply to the opposite condition, what has been dubbed RBF. Does that expression reinforce negative feelings and unhappiness? That would be another topic for another study, he said.
The possibility that a smiling facial expression might make people feel happier makes sense to Thea Gallagher, a psychologist at NYU Langone Health. “It’s one small thing you can try to do,” said Gallagher, who is not affiliated with the new research.
There is similar research showing that when people make a disgusted face upon seeing some revolting food, “it triggers more intense feelings of disgust,” Gallagher said.
The research brings to mind the concept of “fake it till you become it,” Gallagher said. “In cognitive behavioral therapy people are told to do things that once brought them pleasure even if the things don’t do that now.” Eventually those things will once again bring you pleasure and joy, Gallagher said.
Smiling might improve mood in other ways, Gallagher said. “Even if you don’t feel happy in the moment, if you smile at someone and they smile back, it becomes a positive interaction.”
“I always tell people to keep track of the things that make them smile or laugh because those things are good for us in a medicinal way,” Gallagher said. “You want to make sure you have something that makes you smile or brings you joy.”