Can smiling really make you happier?

As the old saying goes: you have to pretend until you make it. This is why we dress for the job we want, not for the job we have; why we act like we’re cute (even though we think we’re average); and above all, why we put on a happy face, even when we feel down.

“The facial feedback hypothesis suggests that people’s emotional experiences are influenced by their facial expressions. For example, smiling should generally make individuals happier, and frowning should make them sadder,” explains a recent article aimed at determining just how true this last wisdom is.

It might sound oddly close to “Live, Laugh, Love” as a philosophy, but the idea that a smile — even a forced, fake smile — can actually make you happier is based on real scientific thought. “Researchers suggest that these effects arise because facial expressions provide sensorimotor feedback that contributes to the feeling of an emotion,” the paper explains.

“This facial feedback hypothesis…supports broader theories that hold that emotional experience is influenced by feedback from the peripheral nervous system, as opposed to bodily experience and sensations being independent components of an emotional response,” note the authors.

But would the theory hold up in the real world? To investigate this, the team embarked on an ambitious research project, recruiting nearly 4,000 participants in 19 countries to find out if consciously smiling – whether knowingly or accidentally – could really improve mood. of somebody.

Now we know what you’re thinking: how do you smile consciously, but also accidentally? It all depends on the group in which you belong to the study.

The volunteers were divided into three sets – one showed images of a smiling actor and told to imitate the image; a second was given instructions on how to configure his facial muscles so that, without realizing it, he did what could reasonably be described as a “smile”; and the third was asked to hold a pen in his mouth with his teeth or lips – the first forcing a face to look like a smile.

But have these measures actually led to an increase in happiness? Surprisingly, yes – at least some of them. “There was strong evidence for facial feedback effects in the facial mimicry and voluntary facial action tasks, but the evidence was less clear in the pen-in-mouth task,” the paper explains.

The researchers aren’t exactly sure why the effect was reduced in the pen-in-mouth experiment – but regardless, lead author Nicholas Coles told Today, “the smile in the hope that it will make you happier probably worth it.”

“It won’t cost you anything and maybe it will work,” he said. “But you shouldn’t see it as a substitute for therapy.”

And if you’re wondering if the same effect works in reverse, the answer is yes, potentially. Pulling a disgusted face, for example, “triggers more intense feelings of disgust,” said Thea Gallagher, a psychologist at NYU Langone Health who was not involved in the research.

Which, ultimately, might be the key to why putting a pen in your mouth doesn’t make you as happy as pretending to smile for real – it might just make you feel slightly wild at the moment. square.

“In retrospect,” the authors admitted, “the pen-in-mouth task we used may simultaneously activate muscles associated with biting, which may mitigate its effect on happiness reports.”

The study is published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

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