An opera singer who played the role of a deeply sad and dispairing woman reported to a researcher that she often felt depressed shortly after each performance. To the researcher, Paul Ekman, it seemed that holding a facial expression etched in sadness was something like a hologram, where a part of the whole could project the whole of the image. Recent research out of the University of Kansas reveals that happiness can also be created in the same way.
In a newly released study, subjects were given stressful tasks while holding chopsticks in their mouths to form a smile, and another group was asked to maintain a smile while performing the stress task. None of the subjects were told the true objective of the study and when physiological measures were compared with a control group performing the same stressful activities, both smiling groups had lower heart rates and faster cardiovascular stress recovery than the non-smiling controls.
As Ekman had predicted, when we hold a facial expression reflecting a particular emotion, even when the expression of happiness is faked, we experience some of that faked emotion. "Fake it till you make it" takes more meaning in light of this and other research along these lines.
These findings suggest that there is a pathway connecting facial muscle activity to our "fight/flight" response and that we can change our physiological and psychological states by deliberately controlling our facial expressions. So perhaps the quote by Mark Twain is true, "The world always looks brighter behind a smile."
The next time you are feeling stressed, have a difficult task, or just wake up on the grumpy side of the bed, smile for a while and see how your mood can change for the better.