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Smiling: A Possible Ingredient in Creative Thinking?

Could the simple act of smiling enable the creative process?

Key points

  • Theories about the effect on mood of smiles have been debated for many years.
  • The James-Lange theory of emotion holds that changes in the body can spark emotions.
  • A link between positive affect, including smiling, and creativity has also been examined.
Source: Bradley Hook / Pexels
Can smiles contribute to creativity?
Source: Bradley Hook / Pexels

Raise your hand if you looked in the mirror today. Putting in contact lenses? Checking that new pimple that emerged yesterday? Looking at those bags under your eyes? Picking out the lunch salad between your teeth?

Nearly 20 skeletal muscles comprise our faces, helping us chew food and generate an array of expressions. Just try to express an emotion without using one of those muscles. Pouting? You’ll need some of those muscles. Surprise? Look at those muscles around your eyebrows. Aggression? See if the muscles around your nose are flaring.

Yet it isn’t just your face you look at. We constantly look at others’ faces. Consider the power of first impressions in making those initial snap judgments about others. Those seeking to date may do exactly that: look at others’ faces, perhaps assessing their level of attractiveness and likeability, in as quickly as a tenth of a second (Willis & Todorov, 2006).

And then comes the all-important smile, aided by muscles called the zygomaticus major and minor.

The act of smiling, which can be a part of “positive affect,” is intriguing, but little is known about its actual relationship to physical health. Hypotheses and theories about smiles have been floated for decades. Even Darwin weighed in, suggesting in 1872 that emotional expressions were critical in communicating positive emotions (Cross, Acevedo, Leger, & Pressman, 2023).

“Researchers have known for quite some time that smiling plays a crucial role in human communication,” Marie Cross, an Assistant Teaching Professor of Biobehavioral Health at The Pennsylvania State University and a lead author of an article on smiling, told me recently. “Smiles can reflect happiness or other positive emotions, and they can help us signal to others that we are friendly and mean them no harm.”

The James-Lange theory of emotion would hold that the act of engaging the zygomaticus muscles leads to feeling happy. In other words, the physical sensation of smiling—whether genuine, fake, or forced—leads to the emotion of happiness. Some research has supported this notion (Pomerantz, 2020). One researcher on smiling, Fernando Marmolejo-Ramos, put it this way: “When your muscles say you’re happy, you’re more likely to see the world around you in a positive way” (as cited in Robinson, 2020). But other experts continue to question the validity of this hypothesis.

Could smiling, or more broadly, positive affect connect with creativity as well? The idea that everyday creativity—such as drawing and writing in ways done to be creative—relates to psychological health has been examined. In a 2014 study, participants were asked “Are you doing something creative?” on their cell phones throughout the day. When involved in everyday creative activities, they related higher levels of happiness (Silvia et al., 2014). In a later study, high-activation emotions that often include smiles, such as enthusiasm and excitement, were associated with small, daily acts of creativity, leading the authors to conclude, “People were more likely to be creative on energetic, happy days, not gloomy days” (Conner & Silvia, 2015). Contradictory mental states, such as smiling when remembering a sad event, have also been shown to heighten divergent thinking (Stern, 2015).

More research is needed to confirm these notions, but maybe the act of smiling can open a door to creative thinking. In the words of the Dalai Lama, “Laughter is good for thinking because when people laugh, it is easier for them to admit new ideas to their minds” (as cited in Aaker & Bagdonas, 2021).


Aaker, J., & Bagdonas, N. (2021). Humor, seriously: Why humor is a secret weapon in business and life. Currency.

Cleveland Clinic. (2021, August 4). Facial muscles.

Conner, T. S., & Silvia, P. J. (2015). Creative days: A daily diary study of emotion, personality, and everyday creativity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity & the Arts, 9(4), 463–470.

Cross, M. P., Acevedo, A. M., Leger, K. A., & Pressman, S. D. (2023). How and why could smiling influence physical health? A conceptual review. Health Psychology Review, 17(2), 321-343.

Pomerantz, A. M. (2020). My psychology (2nd ed.). Worth Publishers.

Robinson, B. (2020, August 13). New study shows forming a simple smile tricks your mind into a positive workday mood. Forbes.…

Silvia, P. J., Beaty, R. E., Nusbaum, E. C., Eddington, K. M., Levin-Aspenson, H., & Kwapil, T. R. (2014). Everyday creativity in daily life: An experience-sampling study of “Little c” creativity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity & the Arts, 8(2), 183–188.

Stern, V. (2015, May/June). More quick tips for creativity and focus. Scientific American, 26(3), 9.

Willis, J., & Todorov, A. (2006). First impressions: Making up your mind after a 100-ms exposure to a face. Psychological Science, 17(7), 592–598.

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