"Just smile, you'll feel better!" Will you? Really?

[Originally posted in November, 2007]

ResearchBlogging.orgDo 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 autonomic reactivity: A test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Emotion, 2 (1), 52-74 DOI: 10.1037/1528-3542.2.1.52

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I recall reading similar results, about how smiling activates happy centres in the brain, in newscientist when I was at university, at least 20 years ago...does this PhD project get resurrected on a regular basis?

Antonio Damasio talked about this in one of his books (I think it was Descarte's Error). Your facial nerves, your feelings, and your emotions are all interconnected. Who'd a thunk it?

Perhaps the people are in a jovial mood because of the ridiculousness of holding a pen/pencil in their teeth. I would be in a silly mood after this, I imagine.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 06 Apr 2009 #permalink

How incredibly interesting.

I've always wondered if one has to come before the other--the emotion (happiness) or the physical muscle movements (smiling). Perhaps, though, happiness causes the smiling reflex AND the smiling behavior can create a sense of happiness?

One exercise horse trainer Alexandra Kurland uses is putting "ears forward" on a cue. Ears forward is (usually) a happier horse, so this is almost like asking the horse to smile.

Many say this exercise works wonders, but I've always wondered if this exercise actually created a happier horse, or just creates a horse that learns to put it's ears forward. Perhaps, though, positive emotions and physical behaviors are as closely linked in other animals as smiling and happiness is in humans.

Good post, I just found this blog and am going to have to add it to my list of feeds.


Mary H.
http://stalecheerios.com/blog --a serial for positive animal training

What about those of us who don't show their teeth when we smile?

It's my theory that we're evil, secret enemies of all happiness.

@Telling a teenager to smile is probably one of the best ways to ensure she won't smile for the next several hours.

This is not true. When I first heard that smiling makes you happier I made an attempt to smile as often as I remembered. When I told friends about this some also tried.
I very much dislike over generalizations about specific age groups with no basis in science.

(anecdotal) I could find no difference between my peers and "full adults" in terms of intelligence or rational ability.

Cats also put their ears back when they are stressed or angry. I've been in the car with mine on several occasions when simple stroking (in the cat carrier) doesn't calm them, but physically holding their ears forward (by gently pressing or massaging the base of the ears just behind them) does. My vet saw me doing this once to calm a nervous cat before an exam, and now she does it, too. We can't think of a corresponding cat-to-cat grooming behavior, so we think it must be like the "smiling" behavior mentioned here.

By speedwell (not verified) on 07 Apr 2009 #permalink

Have we been conditioned to smile through observation? Or is this physical action innate? Either way we know that we smile as a sign of happiness. When we are happy we smile so I would imagine as far as conditioning, smiling would have at least a slight effect on our mood, elevating it at least a bit temporarily. I donât think we smile to provide an indicator to others that we are happy, at least not consciously, otherwise we would never find ourselves in the situation that I am sure most of you have experienced: You are walking somewhere in public when you remember something funny you may have heard of think of someone you love, all of the sudden you realize you have a big smile on your face and immediately try to hide it from the strangers walking past you so you donât look a weirdo. The smiling took place without you making a conscious decision to smile. Also try to listen to a funny joke or think of something heartwarming while keeping a cold expressionless face⦠Are you feeling any joy?

Speaking for myself alone, I have a co-worker who tells me to smile in order to cheer up almost every time we cross paths...and the impulse it engenders in me is more like "desire for disembowelment".

But that could just be because I am cynical and dislike being told how I ought to feel; after all, if I am in a sour mood, then I generally do have a reason to be.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 13 Apr 2009 #permalink

If I am engaged or in a zone, whether at work or at school I don't smile which interestingly enough has some type of affect in the moods of others around me who are working alongside with me. I only say this because just recently at work, a coworker of mine commented on my not smiling, and inquired whether something was wrong, if I was bothered, if I had a bad day. I asked why, and they replied because I wasn't smiling, and it kinda put a damper in their mood. We were the only two in the room.
I also find that,just as mentioned in the blog about the "request to smile" from someone, itself has an automatic affect. If I'm not smiling, whether I'm in a good mood or not, or maybe just neutral, I find it almost automatic to smile, and sometimes briefly feel a sense of change in my attitude, in a positive light.

my teacher made us do this study in my biopsycology class.....i wasnt sure why we were doing it, i wish i had read this article first

My comment is in response to R.B.'s.
I am led to believe there is an effect on your joy if you attempt to hold a frown while you think of something amazing. My reasoning is while thinking about something joyous, you are also concentrating on holding that frown. After you start your results will depend on which one you concentrate on harder: think about the frown and you will continue the frown and the joy will take a back seat, think about whatever makes you happy and your frown will fade. The latter was my result and I wound up with a big goofy smile on my face.