It’s fascinating to realize that the question of whether or not smiling can make you happier has its roots in the writings of the famous biologist Charles Darwin. In 1872, Darwin published a book on this very subject, where he makes the following claim: “the free expression by outward signs of an emotion intensifies it,” and “even the simulation of an emotion tends to arouse it in our minds.”
And the Victorian naturalist wasn’t the only one to believe this idea. By the mid-twentieth century, we see this idea pop up in music and literature too. Nat King Cole's 1954 hit Smile comes to mind. "Smile though your heart is aching […] You'll find that life is still worthwhile/If you just smile," go the lyrics of the famous song.
This suggests that the idea of smiling your way toward a better mood has become a mainstay of popular culture at least since the 1950s.
Related article: The Happiness Effect
The first seminal study set to find out if smiling can lift your mood through experimentation dates back to 1988. In this study, participants were asked to hold a pen either with their teeth (this expression was believed to replicate smiling) or with their lips (a neutral expression). The participants were then shown funny cartoons, and their reactions were recorded. Without an explicit awareness that they were smiling, those who held the pen in their teeth seemed more amused by the cartoons.
The conclusions were clear - smiling can make you feel happier. But it turned out that this was no open-and-shut case. When the same study was replicated by other scientists, the pen-in-mouth action did not elicit positive results. Other methods of measuring the connection between fake smiles and happiness were devised by scientists. And according to a 2019 review study that included 138 experiments found that smiling does seem to bring positive emotions, but the effect seems to be very minor.
But even this is not the end of the story.
After decades of research, the authors of a recently-published study in the Nature Human Behavior journal are hoping to bring this long-winded smiling discussion to an end.
To do so, researchers have recruited 3,800 participants from 19 countries across the world. Each volunteer was asked to either smile or keep a neutral expression using three different 5-second smiling prompts, including a version of the already familiar pen-in-teeth task. The second task involved “mimicking” a photo of an actor who is either smiling or has a blank expression. And the final task, the volunteers were to either smile or have a blank facial expression.
An important aspect of every study is that the volunteers don’t know what the research is about. To prevent the participants from influencing the results of these smiling or neutral prompts, the researchers mixed in decoy prompts. Namely, the researchers said they were studying how minor movements and distractions influenced one’s ability to solve math problems.
After each prompt, the participants were to rate their happiness, anxiety, anger, tiredness, and confusion by filling in a questionnaire.
So, what were the results?
Every smiling intervention had some positive effect on feelings of happiness. This effect was greatest in the task where participants had to mimic the actor or just smile, and the pen-in-the-teeth task yielded a smaller effect.
This means that an active task where you’re faking a smile could have a positive influence on your mood. The action of smiling alone activates biological pathways associated with happiness, it appears.
"It is possible that relatively small facial feedback effects could accumulate into meaningful changes in well-being over time," the researchers write. Although the researchers are doubtful that fake smiling could lead to a lasting improvement in your emotional well-being, they say that an instant although short-lived boost of happiness is quite realistic. So why not try and lift your mood by smiling in the mirror for 5 seconds? It won’t hurt, that’s for sure.
H/T: Science Alert, Bedfordbugle.wordpress.com