Smiling is the secret to happiness, according to experts

The phrase ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ could even apply to your mood, according to scientists from the University of Tennessee and Texas A&M University. In other words, scowling or smiling when you don’t feel like it could actually make you feel upset or happier.

The study “Effects of facial feedback on emotional experience are small and variable”, was published in the journal Psychological Bulletin on 11th April 2019.

Forcing a smile may improve your mood, according to a new studyRido | Shutterstock

The validity of this bit of traditional advice, coming from famous naturalists like Charles Darwin no less than from old grandmothers, has repeatedly been questioned by psychologists.

Darwin’s book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, contains this observation, also called the ‘facial feedback hypothesis’.

This has been tested by many experiments designed to examine the effect of expressing a pretended emotion in order to change one’s mood.

Typically, an emotion is registered before it is physically expressed. The facial feedback hypothesis turns this order around, encouraging individuals to express an emotion so that the mood actually changes to fit the expressed emotion.

For instance, a mirthless grin was found, in one famous study, to make the person feel more like laughing while watching a humorous show. This triggered a wave of advice on how to improve one’s life by faking laughter in order to elevate one’s mood.

However, the original study, which was based on forcing a grin-like grimace by holding a pen lengthways in one’s mouth while watching funny cartoons, failed to evoke similar results when repeated by the same scientists, on a much larger scale, after three decades.

This should not be a surprise since psychology experiments are known to produce extremely variable results due to a range of factors which influence the results.

To add to the difficulty, there are numerous facial feedback hypotheses, not just one, creating widespread controversy over the effects of forcing an emotion. The current study involved a meta-analysis of 138 experimental studies, including over 11,000 people over the last 50 years. The aim was to eliminate as many potential sources of error and bias as possible, by examining the methods used in different studies.

The conclusion was clear: a smile can stimulate a  positive emotional change, while a scowl triggers a feeling of mild disgust. However, this correlation was lacking when it came to expressions of fear or surprise.

The researchers also found that the final effect varied with the stimulus for the forced emotion. For example, a subtly funny cartoon did not trigger amusement simply because the viewer forced a smile whilst watching it. On the other hand, a slapstick comedy could alter the mood of the viewer if they were physically prepared to experience a mood change.

Overall, some stimuli like emotional sentences were found to cause greater feedback effects compared to others, such as pictures.

The take-home conclusion is that the facial feedback hypothesis is correct, to some degree. However, the complex link between the emotions and physical reactions means that the observed effect changes with the situation and its size is small, though not insignificant.

What does this mean?

A smile may help you feel a bit better – but that doesn’t mean forcing emotions by means of physical actions is a reliable way to improve one’s mood. The current study helps to put this cause-effect relationship into a little better perspective:

We don't think that people can smile their way to happiness. But these findings provide a clue about how the mind and the body interact to shape our conscious experience of emotion. This meta-analysis put us a little closer to understanding how emotions work."

Nicholas Coles, Lead Researcher

Dr. Liji Thomas

Written by

Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.

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