Jan18 Behind Science Smiling Unsplash 1

Photo courtesy of Matheus Ferrero/Unsplash

Saying “cheese” in front of a camera can cleverly elicit a broad, toothy smile on-demand, even if we’re not in the mood to strike a pose. But what if all that “cheesing” does more than create the perfect Instagram? In fact, faking happiness could actually contribute to making us happier.

It can be difficult to conceal feelings, no matter how hard we try sometimes. However, scientists have long suspected that the connection between our emotions and our physical expressions may work in both directions. Charles Darwin once said that “even the simulation of an emotion tends to arouse it in our minds.” In other words, if joy makes us smile, the very act of smiling should also make us joyful.

Psychologists have built on Darwin’s observation to create the Facial Feedback Hypothesis (FFH): the idea that the posture of our facial muscles impacts how we experience emotions. The FFH has inspired studies of the science of smiling, and advances in laboratory technology continue to reveal exciting new findings about putting on a happy face.

I Smile, Therefore I’m Glad

We often tell a story with our expression in hopes that others will believe it. For instance, we may use a smile to signal happiness for a friend’s new relationship, even though we are secretly working through a hard breakup. Or we say “I’m fine” paired with a smile to declare confidence if we don’t want to be bothered. Studies have shown that our bodies so strongly associate smiling with happiness that flexing the right facial muscles actually triggers the release of endorphins (the feel-good neurotransmitters that elevate our moods and suppress pain), starting a cycle of authentic good feelings for ourselves.  

Jan18 Behind Science Smiling Unsplash 2

Photo courtesy of Kyle Sterk/Unsplash

Gritting or Grinning?

It’s easier than you might think to trick yourself into becoming joyful from the outside in. Researchers have successfully elevated their subjects’ moods by having them grip a pencil between the teeth, activating their zygomatic muscles (essential for smiling), without ever mentioning emotion. This same principle helps us smile for the camera, making us look, and maybe even feel, more festive.

Don’t Hold Back

Turns out that we have a really strong need to outwardly express what we are feeling. Studies on expression suppression show that the intensity of our feelings can be influenced by how freely we are allowed to express them. For example, if we experience something that fills us with joy, but are then restrained from smiling (by being asked to hold a different facial posture, perhaps), our feelings of happiness will be less strong and more fleeting than if we had been allowed to let loose with a smile.

Careful, It’s Contagious

Sometimes we find ourselves wanting to be surrounded by an uplifting atmosphere that elevates our spirits, even in challenging circumstances. But what is it exactly that enables this collective mood to be boosted so effectively? Research offers at least a partial explanation: mind control. Studies using brain scanning technology have discovered that when we view a smiling person, mirror neurons in our brain gradually take control of our facial muscles and unconsciously cause us to imitate the joyful expression. This facial posture, in turn, triggers the pleasure responses mentioned above, until our cheerful companion has effectively hijacked us with happiness.


Articles from The Natural should not be considered medical advice. If you have any questions about your health, please consult a medical professional.