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Psychology Researchers Tell Us How-To Actually Smile And What It Can Do

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When we’re happy, our faces light up with smiles. Our cheeks rise, our lips turn outward and upward, and the skin around our eyes wrinkles. But does it also work in the opposite direction? Can making a smile with our muscles make us feel better?

The facial feedback hypothesis, a notion that has been the subject of much discussion among psychologists, contends that facial expressions can affect how we feel. An international team of researchers spearheaded by Stanford research scientist Nicholas Coles uncovered compelling evidence that smiling can actually make us happier in a recent report published in Nature Human Behavior.

According to Coles, the effect isn’t strong enough to get rid of something like depression, but it does offer helpful insight about what emotions are and their origins.

“We experience emotion so often that we forget to marvel at just how incredible this ability is. But without emotion,” he says, “there’s no pain or pleasure, no suffering or bliss, and no tragedy and glory in the human condition.

“This research,” according to him, “tells us something fundamentally important about how this emotional experience works.”

Psychologists are still unsure of the origins of this crucial aspect of the human condition. One hypothesis holds that our conscious perception of emotions is dependent on bodily sensations; for instance, it is thought that the sensation of a racing heart contributes to the emotion of terror. This notion has frequently been supported by facial feedback, but newer experiments have cast doubt on its validity.

Coles regarded himself as being on the fence about the subject before finishing this endeavor. A seminal facial feedback study indicated that participants perceived Gary Larson’s The Far Side comedy funnier when they held a pen or pencil in their teeth without letting their lips touch it (supposedly activating the same muscles as a smile). However, 17 different labs tried and failed to duplicate similar findings in 2016, casting doubt on the theory.

In 2019, Coles performed a meta-analysis of prior research on the topic using a variety of different methodologies. His findings appeared to support facial feedback at least in part. He therefore made the decision to attempt to resolve the issue in a way that would persuade both skeptics and believers. He established the Many Smiles Collaboration, which brought together individuals from opposing viewpoints as well as middle-grounders like Coles, and together they came up with an approach that satisfied everyone.

“Rather than quibble and debate over Twitter and through journal articles, which would take decades and probably not be that productive, we said, ‘Let’s just come together and design something that would please both sides,’ ” Coles adds. “Let’s figure out a way that we could potentially convince proponents that the effect isn’t real, and potentially convince critics that the effect is real.”

The researchers came up with a plan that used three well-known methods to get people to use their smile muscles. The pen-in-mouth technique was instructed to one-third of the participants, the happy actor facial gestures were asked of another third, and the last third was instructed to move the corners of their lips toward their ears and elevate their cheeks using simply facial muscles.

Half of the participants in each group completed the task while viewing cheery pictures of puppies, kittens, flowers, and fireworks, whereas the other half only saw a blank screen. They observed the same images—or a lack thereof—while being instructed to maintain a neutral expression.

The researchers mixed in a number of other minor physical tasks and gave participants short math problems to complete in order to hide the trial’s intended outcome. The participants rated their level of happiness following each task.

Data was gathered by the Many Smiles Collaboration from 3,878 participants in 19 different nations. After evaluating their data, the researchers discovered that participants’ pleasure levels significantly increased when they mimicked smiling photos or pulled their mouths toward their ears. However, they did not discover a significant difference in participants’ moods while employing the pen-in-mouth strategy, similar to the 2016 group.

With the pen-in-mouth scenario, the effect wasn’t as consistent, according to Coles. 

With the pen-in-mouth scenario, the effect wasn’t as consistent, according to Coles. 

“We’re not sure why. Going into the study, we assumed that all three techniques created the correct muscular configuration for an expression of happiness. But we found some evidence that the pen-in-mouth condition may not be actually creating an expression that closely resembles smiling.”

For instance, gripping the pen can entail some clenching of the teeth that isn’t typically seen in a real smile, which could be a confusing issue. The evidence from the other two methods, however, is unmistakable and makes a strong case that human emotions are somehow connected to bodily sensations like muscular contractions.

“The stretch of a smile can make people feel happy and the furrowed brow can make people feel angry; thus, the conscious experience of emotion must be at least partially based on bodily sensations,” Coles explains. “Over the past few years, science took one step back and a few steps forward. But now we’re closer than ever to understanding a fundamental part of the human condition: emotion.”

Image Credit: Getty

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