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Try Some Smile Therapy

You might be surprised how easy it is and how good it feels.

I’m so excited. Those who have worked with me might recall my reference to some vague research about the benefits that come from smiling. The research that I summoned up from psychology 101 was lost in my “this-is-probably-important-but-there-is-no-way-I-will-remember-it” database.

Over and over again, I have inadequately told the story of some research that had discovered when people "forced" their faces into a smile, they perceived things as funnier than when they had forced their faces into a pouting or frowning position.

Make yourself smile, I often say. Stick a pencil in your mouth (I show them), between your lips, it makes you frown, in your teeth, it makes you smile. It always sounded good and my clients seem to love the reference. After all, aren't we all really searching for a quick fix?

So for years now, I have relayed this tale of research that I had no information on (had I made it up?) in an effort to substantiate my oversimplistic claim that smiling through a bad moment might just help you feel better.

Everyone knows this is not an original thought. In fact, my mother has been telling me that for almost 60 years! But this is a notion that takes some getting used to, especially if you are feeling extraordinarily cranky or worse, consumed by depressive thinking. Surely, faking a smile cannot really make a difference.

The reason I’m excited today is that I read more research about this same hypothesis — and everyone knows I just love it when I find science to back up what I’ve been saying for 100 years. I am finally able to put some names and statistics together to support my anecdotes and what must surely be comical demonstrations.

Originally, this facial feedback phenomenon was studied by Laird (1974) who conducted two experiments in which he manipulated participants’ facial expressions without their knowledge while they viewed cartoons. He attached surface electrodes to participants between their eyebrows, at the corners of their mouths, and on their jaws. Then a set of the electrodes was touched and participants were asked to contract their muscles at these specific points. This experiment tested the hypothesis that if an individual’s mouth is manipulated into the form of a smile it would change his or her perception of a humorous video clip.

A later study—the one I am always eager to improvise in my office because I'm shameless and it’s fun to look stupid when trying to make a good point—was conducted by Strack, et al in 1988.

Participants were told to hold a pencil between their teeth while performing a task that involved rating the degree of humor in cartoons. Holding the pencil in the mouth this way forced the individuals to smile. (Try it; you’ll see. The pencil can be lengthwise between the teeth or hanging down from the tip between your teeth. Either way, you get the forced smile.)

Other participants were instructed to hold the pencil between their lips without touching the pencil with their teeth; this forces the muscles to contract, resulting in a frown. The authors hypothesized that participants who were led to smile would judge the cartoons as funnier than participants who were led to frown.

Which is exactly what happened.

Since this work, others added new criteria, such a “how” a person smiles, whether it’s a fake smile, or authentic (Duchene), whether teeth are exposed, the cheeks are lifted, and the corners of the mouth are raised. They’ve also discovered that there is a greater effect on a person’s experience with positive events (funny video clips or cartoons) than on someone having a negative experience, such as watching unpleasant video clips (Soussignan, 2002).

Hmm. That can’t be good for my theory. Nevertheless…

Today, PsychCentral posted an article on their blog about this very subject. Newer research is examining this further—how different kinds of smiling and our awareness of our smiling will impact our mood.

In this newer study, where pencils were replaced with chopsticks, they also showed this induced smiling may have benefits for our hearts. Here’s the take-home point: “The researchers say their findings suggest smiling during brief periods of stress may help reduce the body's stress response, regardless of whether the person actually feels happy or not.”

And if that’s not enough…

According to Mark Stibich, a consultant at Columbia University, and contributor to a Guide to Longevity at, smiling:

  1. Makes you attractive to others. There is an automatic attraction to people who smile.
  2. Changes your mood. If you try, even when it’s difficult, to smile when you are not feeling good, there is a chance it might improve your affect and change the way you are feeling.
  3. Is contagious. Others will want to be with you. You will be helping others feel good.
  4. Relieves stress. Stress does express itself right in our faces. When we smile, it can help us look better, less tired, and less worn down.
  5. Boosts the immune system. Smiling can actually stimulate your immune response by helping you relax.
  6. Lowers blood pressure. When you smile, there is evidence that your blood pressure can decrease.
  7. Releases endorphins and serotonin. Research has reported that smiling releases endorphins, which are natural pain relievers, along with serotonin, which is also associated with feel-good properties.

Duchenne smiles are the only type of smile that creates these positive effects. These smiles engage the muscles in the mouth, cheeks, and eyes and are considered to be genuine smiles.


When you smile at someone else and they smile a real smile in return, you are helping to create physiological changes in their bodies that may benefit them as well as yourself.

If you are feeling good, let others know it. It will look good on you, and help others around you. If you are not feeling good, go get a pencil and hold it between your teeth.

Copyright 2012 Karen Kleiman, LCSW.

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