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You've Got to be Kidding...

Does Smiling Make You Happy?


Jonathan van Bilsen

July 27, 2022

Does Smiling Make You Happy?

For many years, scientists have been researching the positive benefits of smiling. Psychologists believe ’facial feedback’ from emotional expressions like smiling (or frowning), gives the brain information that heightens, or even sparks, an emotional experience.

Try putting a pen or pencil between your teeth, as if you were about to try to write with it. Don’t let your lips touch it. Sit with it, and pay attention to how you feel. Are you glum? Cheerful? Confused? Is that any different from how you felt before? Do you feel like this weird smile tricked your brain into a slight jump in happiness?

The idea that smiling can make you feel happier has a long history. In 1872, Darwin thought about whether an emotion that was expressed would be felt more intensely, than one that was repressed. Early psychologists were musing about it in the 1880s. 

In 1988, social psychologist Fritz Strack published a study that seemed to confirm that facial feedback was real. The researchers asked participants to hold a pen in their mouth, in a position that forced them either to bare their teeth in a facsimile of a smile, or to purse their lips around the pen.

These folks were then shown a set of newspaper comics. Even though participants were not thinking about smiling, just moving their face into a smile-like shape seemed to affect their emotions. The finding made its way into psychology textbooks, and countless news headlines.

A fellow named Wagenmakers, repeated the same experiment in 2016. He planned to combine all of the existing literature on smiling into a giant document. Was there really something promising going on with the facial feedback? Overall, across hundreds of results, there was a small, but reliable, facial feedback effect. This left a new uncertainty hanging over the facial feedback hypothesis. 

I do not know the answer, and it appears no one does, but I do know that a smile is better than a frown, or as Nat King Cole said in his popular song, 

‘Smile though your heart is aching,’

 ‘Smile even though it's breaking,’

 ‘When there are clouds in the sky, you'll get by.’

 ‘If you smile through your fear and sorrow,’

 ‘Smile and maybe tomorrow,’

 ‘You'll see the sun come shining through for you.’

Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. Watch his show, ‘Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel’, on RogersTV, the Standard Website or YouTube.

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