Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Smile: A Powerful Tool

A quick tip to trick your brain into thinking you're happy

I’ll cut right to the chase and you can go back to whatever you were doing: smile, relax, sit up straight. You’re welcome.

In case you’re interested, here’s a little more context. Scientists have known for a long time that emotions are accompanied by numerous changes in the body, from elevation in the heart rate to flexion of the zygomatic major muscle (i.e. smiling). However, we’ve come to understand more recently that it’s a two way street. Your brain actually pays attention to what your body is doing, and it affects your emotions. This was first called the “facial feedback hypothesis”, but it applies to more than just muscles of the face. The good news is that while it’s sometimes hard to control our emotions, it’s much easier to control our muscles. So to teach you how to use your body to trick your brain, I’ll be releasing a series of quick tips for boosting your happiness, tranquility and confidence.

Quick Tip For Happiness:

Smile. Seriously, just do it. You’ll enjoy this post more if you do. (If you’re thinking “Screw that, I don’t want to enjoy this post more” then feel free to stop reading). Your smile is a powerful tool. Most people think that we smile because we feel happy, but it can go the other way as well: we feel happy because we smile.

One of the best experiments to demonstrate this came from the late '80s. The researchers did not want to influence the results by telling subjects that the study was about emotion, so they devised an ingenious way to get the subjects to flex certain muscles of their face without knowing why. They had subjects hold a pencil in one of three ways. The first group held the pencil widthwise between their teeth, forcing a smile. The second group held the pencil in their lips lengthwise, which means they couldn’t smile, and were actually making kind of a frown. The control group held the pencil in their hand. Then the subjects looked at some cartoons, and rated how funny they were. The “smile” group gave the cartoons much higher “funny” ratings than the “frown” group, while the control group was somewhere in the middle.

In a more recent study, subjects were presented with a series of faces, which had either happy, neutral or angry expressions. The subjects were told that the study was attempting to measure reaction time of facial muscles, but they were really studying emotion. Regardless of the image, subjects were instructed to either “raise their cheeks” (aka smile) or “contract their eyebrows” (aka frown). The instructed facial expression influenced how the images were perceived. When subjects smiled they found the images more pleasant than when they frowned. On top of that, the effects of the brief smile even persisted 4 minutes later.

Facial feedback works because the brain senses the flexion of certain facial muscles (like the zygomatic major, which is required to smile) and interprets it as “Oh I must be happy about something.” Similarly, if that muscle isn’t flexed then your brain thinks, “Oh, I must not be happy”.

In addition to the direct neural feedback, in the real world you also get the added advantage of social feedback. Smiles are infectious (perhaps another post on mirror neurons in the future). So even if you don’t feel much happier, the people around you are more likely to smile, and that can improve your mood as well.

Lastly, if you can work up the energy to actually smile, you’ll probably have an even bigger benefit. While the zygomatic major controls the corners of your mouth, there is a muscle at the corner of the eyes called the orbicularis oculi that only flexes when you’re actually smiling. So if you really want to get the biggest facial feedback benefit, find something to laugh about (perhaps the fact that you’re trying to flex certain muscles to trick your brain into thinking you’re happy). That will likely generate a true smile. This is also a great tip for becoming more photogenic (trust me, I mean look at that profile pic). The reason many people think their smiles look fake in pictures is that their smiles are fake. The corners of their eyes are not flexed.

So next time you want to improve your mood a little, all you have to do is flex your zygomatic major muscles to raise the corners of your mouth. Although, if you want to win America’s Next Top Model (is that show still on?) you’ll have to flex those orbicularis oculi.

Check back soon for the next quick tip on increasing tranquility.

If you liked this post then check out my book - The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time

You may also like these other posts:
Boosting Your Serotonin Activity

Yoga: Changing the Brain's Stressful Habits

Or become a fan of Alex Korb PhD on Facebook

More from Alex Korb Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today