Do people ever tell you to “just smile, you’ll feel better”? If you’re like our daughter Nora, you hear it a lot, and you get annoyed every time you hear it. Telling a teenager to smile is probably one of the best ways to ensure she won’t smile for the next several hours. But the notion that “smiling will make you feel better” has actually been confirmed by research. There are several studies demonstrating that people are happier when they smile, at least in certain circumstances.
It’s not as easy as you might think to study the effect. For one thing, it’s possible that it’s not the physical smile itself, but the request that’s causing the emotional change. Researchers have attempted to get around that problem by simply directing people to move their facial muscles in a proscribed sequence (“Move your lips to expose your teeth while keeping your mouth closed.” “Now use your cheek muscles to pull the corners of your lips outward,” and so on). But still, it’s likely that research participants will catch on to the purpose of the study when they are asked whether they are feeling happy or sad.
In 1988 a team led by Fritz Strack came up with a brilliant cover story that allowed them to manipulate facial expressions without the research participants’ awareness. The researchers told participants that they were studying adaptations for people who had lost the use of their hands. Such individuals would need to use their mouths to hold pencils for writing, or to use a television remote. The study was to assess whether the unpleasantness or difficult of these tasks affected their “attentional abilities and responsiveness.” The current study on people with full use of their hands was simply designed to test the procedure.
The participants then held a pencil in their teeth (which naturally activates the muscles typically used for smiling) or lips (which does not activate those muscles), and then rated several cartoons for funniness. Those who were (unknowingly) “smiling” rated the cartoons as funnier than people who weren’t smiling.
Innovative as it was, the Strack team’s study had several limitations, the most important of which is that the researchers didn’t account for the physical differences in holding a pencil with lips versus teeth. If the people are simply more uncomfortable holding a pencil in their lips, that might explain the entire difference between the “smiling” and “not smiling” conditions.
In 2002 Robert Soussignan designed a new study which both addressed the earlier works’ limitations and added a couple extra twists. He adopted Strack et al.’s cover story, but asked 96 female undergraduates to hold the pencil in one of four different ways: In the lips, in the teeth but without “smiling,” in the teeth while “fake smiling” — exposing the teeth and stretching the corners of the mouth but not raising the cheeks in a more authentic looking smile, and in the teeth with an authentic smile expression. This was done by telling participants to both stretch the corners of the mouth and raise their cheeks. I tried these last two techniques myself:
I think you’ll agree that I look much happier in the picture on the right.
Once participants were coaxed into these positions, they conducted two tests. In the first, a distractor meant to disguise the true purpose of the study, they used the pencil to underline the vowels in a sentence. Then they were shown several video clips and asked to rate their reactions to them on a scale of -9 (negative emotion) to +9 (positive emotion). Some of the clips were very negative, such as a mutilated body or a person stretching an animal skin. Others were mildly positive, like landscapes or baby animals, and others were extremely positive — funny clips from the cartoons Tex Avery and Tom & Jerry. For the positive videos, there was a distinct difference between the ratings of the participants who were smiling and those who were not. Here are the results for the cartoon clips:
The ratings for the authentic smilers were significantly higher than the non-smilers for each cartoon. The Tex Avery cartoon was rated significantly higher for authentic smilers than fake smilers, while there was no significant difference between smile types for the Tom & Jerry cartoon. The moderately positive videos showed an even more dramatic difference, with authentic smilers rating their reactions significantly higher than any of the other three conditions.
Soussignan also asked the participants to rate the unpleasantness of the requirement of holding the pencil during the study, and found no significant differences between any of the conditions. The students also were carefully questioned, and none of them suspected the real purpose of the study.
Interestingly, there was no difference in the ratings of the unpleasant videos between any of the groups. Only positive videos were affected by the smiling / non-smiling condition. Soussignan argues that this supports the notion that smiling will accentuate a positive emotional experience, but will have no effect on a negative experience.
This might also explain why it’s so difficult to get a gloomy teenager to smile.
Soussignan, R. (2002). Duchenne Smile, emotional experience, and automatic reactivity: A test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Emotion, 2(1), 52-74. DOI: 10.1037/1528-35188.8.131.52