Bryan E. Robinson Ph.D.

The Right Mindset

New Study Suggests Smiling Influences How You See the World

Can a smile trick your mind into a more positive mood?

Posted Aug 14, 2020

 Pam Sharpe/Unsplash
Source: Pam Sharpe/Unsplash

“Smile and the world smiles with you, cry and you cry alone,” goes the song. For decades, singers have crooned about the power of smiling to make you feel better. With the pandemic and increases of anxiety and depression, smiling and optimism don’t come easily these days. But a new study to be published in the journal Experimental Psychology suggests the sheer activity of moving your facial muscles to form a smile—even if you fake it—can influence our perception of emotions. Could smiling be a simple antidote to help us get through these extraordinary times?

Clinicians and Twelve Step programs have batted around the age-old strategy of “acting as if”—a simple, yet powerful tool that says you can lift your mood by acting as if you already feel better than you actually do.

Here’s how it works. You give yourself to a certain performance as if it’s how you already feel. When you act "as if," the mood you pretend becomes a reality. Suppose you’re angry toward someone who offended you but you want to be forgiving. You can start to feel forgiving by acting as if you are forgiving. Perhaps you’re feeling envious of a friend’s good news but want to be happy for him or her. You can be happy by acting as if you are happy.

Science-Backed Evidence for “Acting As If”

It might sound too simple to be true, but science backs it up. A previous study at the University of Rochester found that when faced with a difficult task, people who sat up straight and crossed their arms persevered for almost twice as long as the others. Changing body posture, breathing patterns, muscle tension, facial expressions, gestures, movements, words, and vocal tonality releases chemicals that can change our internal state. Standing tall with shoulders back makes us look confident, plus it makes us feel more confident. Training the body to position itself the way you want to think and feel about yourself adjusts your thoughts and feelings to the way you want them to be. Making body adjustments—pulling your shoulders back, standing or sitting up straight, walking in a more expansive way—can pull you out of self-doubt, disappointment, or dread and any other self-defeating emotion.

The reason it works is because of the mind-body connection. When you “act as if,” the rest of you follows suit. The cells of your body constantly eavesdrop on your thoughts from the wings of your mind. When you’re doubtful or disappointed about something, your body goes with the downturn of your feelings and dumps a cocktail of neuropeptides into your bloodstream, making you feel worse in a matter of seconds. As you focus on the negative feeling, you might not even realize that you hunch your head or slump when you walk. This body posture not only reflects how you feel but also contributes to how you feel, which makes you feel even worse and come across in a negative way.

The same seems to be true with smiling. An earlier study by Michael Lewis and his research team at the University of Cardiff in Wales found that people who received cosmetic Botox injections (compromising their ability to frown) reported being happier than did people who could frown normally. The researchers administered an anxiety and depression questionnaire to 25 females, half of whom had received frown-inhibiting Botox injections. The Botox recipients reported feeling happier and less anxious in general; more important, they did not report feeling any more attractive, which suggests that the emotional effects were not driven by a psychological boost that could come from the treatment’s cosmetic nature.

The New Study

Research from the University of South Australia provides evidence that the act of smiling can trick your mind into happiness, simply by how you move your facial muscles. We may feel bad not just because facial expressions reflect how we feel, but because they contribute to how we feel.

The new study evaluated the impact of a covert smile on perceptions of both face and body expressions. In both cases, a smile was induced by participants holding a pen between their teeth, forcing their facial muscles to replicate the movement of a smile. Participants in one group held a pen between their teeth, forcing their facial muscles into a smile while a comparison group held no pen between their teeth. Both groups were shown a range of facial expressions (from frowns to smiles) and a series of body movements (from “sad walking” videos to “happy walking” videos).

Under the “pen-in-the-teeth” condition, those who adopted the forced “smiling” facial position were more inclined to interpret the facial expressions of others as positive, compared to the “no-pen” group, which replicated a 10-year old study. The second part of the study, which hasn't been documented before now, showed similar results for how body movements are perceived: Participants in the "pen-in-mouth" group were more likely to perceive body movements of others as happier than the control group.

“When your muscles say you’re happy, you’re more likely to see the world around you in a positive way,” the chief investigator, Dr. Fernando Marmolejo-Ramos, said in a news release. He concludes that "If we can trick the brain into perceiving stimuli as 'happy,' then we can potentially use this mechanism to help boost mental health.”

Smile Whether You Mean It or Not

This study contributes to the scientific backing of the old adage, “fake it, ‘til you make it.” Of course, you don’t want to walk around with a pen between your teeth. But because our perceptual and motor systems are intertwined, your facial muscular activity alters how you perceive the facial and body expressions of others. Simply activating a smile contributes to a positive neurological reaction. In other words, when your facial muscles say you’re happy, you’re more likely to experience the world in a more positive light.

So next time you’re feeling blue or have a sour attitude, jump start a feel-good day by putting on a happy face and smiling. Remind yourself that frowning and dreading make you feel worse. Even if you have to fake it to start, convince yourself that facing the day is a piece of cake, act as if it’s true, and then notice how it becomes true.

References

Friedman, R. & Elliot, A. J. (2007). The effect of arm crossing on persistence and performance. European Journal of Social Psychology, 38 (3), 449-461. DOI.org/10.1002/ejsp.444

Lewis, M. B., et al. (2009). Botulinum toxin cosmetic therapy correlates with a more positive mood. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 8, 24-26.

Marmolejo-Ramos, F., Murata, A., Sasaki, K., Yamada, Y., Ikeda, A., Hinojosa, J. A., Watanabe, K., Parzuchowski, M., Tirado, C., & Ospina, R. (2020). Your face and moves seem happier when I smile. Facial action influences the perception of emotional faces and biological motion stimuli. Experimental Psychology, 67 (1), 14-22.