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Research shows that faking a smile can improve mood. Robert Lang/Stocksy
  • Humans communicate their feelings through their facial expressions.
  • Facial feedback theory states that this can change the way we feel.
  • New international research has shown that posing with a fake smile can make people feel happier, but it doesn’t change their levels of anger or anxiety.
  • The scientists also found people who viewed positive images felt happier than those who didn’t view the images.

The way our face moves can influence how we feel, according to the facial feedback hypothesis. Facial expressions do more than express emotions, they also provide feedback to the brain, which influences our emotions.

A new global collaboration led by researchers at Stanford University has shown that even fake or posed smiles can make people feel happier.

The study is published in Nature Human Behavior.

According to the lead author of the study Dr. Nicholas Coles, a research scientist at Stanford University, there are two theories behind why faking a smile can help make us happier.

In an interview with Medical News Today, Dr. Coles explained:

“A classic view is that facial feedback activates a biologically innate ‘switch’ (e.g. in the brain) that causes the full-body emotional response. However, this idea is controversial.”

He also outlined the less controversial view “[…] that sensorimotor feedback from the face is simply a cue that our brains use to understand how we are feeling. Sensorimotor feedback from a smile is a cue that tells us we are feeling good, and sensorimotor feedback from a scowl is a cue that tells us we are feeling bad.”

Earlier studies have shown that the lower face has a more significant effect on emotion, but Dr. Coles said this may not be strictly true as “Facial expressions of emotion often activate muscles in both halves of the face. For example, in an authentic smile, there is often both a stretching of the lips and a crinkling of the eyes”

Research surrounding the theory has led to mixed results due to different methods causing a lack of reproducible data the work in the current study aimed to clarify this.

In total, 26 research groups from 19 different countries and over 3,800 participants were involved in the work as part of the Many Smiles Collaboration. The average age of the participants was 26, and over 70% were women.

Researchers asked the participants to take part in different tasks before completing a Discrete Emotions Questionnaire (DEQ) to measure their happiness levels. Happiness ratings included satisfaction, liking, and enjoyment from 1 = “not at all” to 7 = “an extreme amount”. Researchers also asked participants about their levels of anxiety, anger, tiredness, and confusion.

The tasks participants completed were:

  • Pen-in-mouth task — where the participants held a pen with their teeth to simulate smiling or with their lips to create a neutral pose.
  • Facial mimicry task — where researchers asked the participants to copy the facial expression of actors posing with happy expressions or pose with neutral expressions.
  • Voluntary facial action task — where researchers asked the participants to move the corners of their lips toward their ears and elevate their cheeks using their facial muscles or pose with a neutral facial posture.

Before the tests were completed, the scientists performed attention checks. The participants who didn’t achieve a set score were not included in the study. The researchers also excluded the participants who used a mobile device to complete the study, didn’t recreate the posed face required, or indicated they were distracted at the time of the study.

The researchers studied the responses of the DEQ to understand if the participants reported level of happiness changed when they posed with a happy face or a neutral expression.

Scientists also studied the effect of positive images (pictures of dogs, flowers, kittens, and rainbows or culturally appropriate alternatives) on the participant’s happiness levels using the DEQ.

Participants reported higher levels of happiness in the presence of positive images and after posing with a happy expression.

Professor Olga Stavrova, associate professor at Tilburg University, who was not involved in the study, shared her thoughts on Twitter, calling the research “very interesting”.

She said that the increased levels of happiness participants reported after being exposed to smiling versus neutral faces may be due to “emotional contagion” — where people tend to align their emotional state with those around them.

The researchers noted that a posed happy face in the presence of a positive image didn’t have any further increase in feelings of happiness.

Interestingly, they also noted that a happy facial expression didn’t decrease feelings of anger or anxiety. However, participants reported higher levels of anger and anxiety in the pen-in-mouth task than in the other two tasks.

When asked why the research looked at smiling, Dr. Coles explained that logistical constraints stopped them from studying theimpact of “multiple facial expressions”. This would have meant expanding the already complex research and involving a much larger number of participants.

He went on to say that a group within the Many Smiles Collaboration looked at other facial expressions in a follow-up study, where they examined both the effects of smiling and scowling.

“[They] found that posed smiles increased happiness and posed scowls increased anger—even when participants were told or believed that such effects are not real. [E]xpanding the number of facial expressions, this work suggested that such effects are not merely placebo,” he said.

Discussing the impact of different expressions, Dr. Coles said they had interesting results for several other emotions.

“Intriguingly, we did not find the effect for posed expressions of fear and surprise. However, that may be due to the fact that there are not yet many studies on those expressions,” he said.

This study shows that “facial feedback is one of the many components of the peripheral nervous system that contribute to emotional experience.”

But does the study mean smiling in the mirror every morning can manage distress, and could these small effects accumulate and influence well-being over time? At the moment, there is not enough research to fully understand if facial feedback can be used to improve mental health.

“The effect of posed smiles on happiness is very small—about the same size as the effect of looking at mildly pleasant photos of rainbows and puppies. Given that pictures of puppies haven’t emerged as a serious well-being intervention, I find it unlikely that posed smiles will. Ultimately, however, we will need more research if we want to know for sure.”
— Dr. Nicholas Coles

The next steps for this work are not just to understand how a single part of the body impacts emotion. The aim, according to Dr. Coles, is to form “a massive international and interdisciplinary study that will help […] understand how multiple parts of the body (e.g., heart rate, facial expressions, body temperature) behave and come together shape the conscious experience of emotion.”