Can Faking a Smile Actually Make You Happier? Scientists Think They Know the Answer

This man is bursting with totally organic happiness.
This man is bursting with totally organic happiness. / ferrantraite/E+ via Getty Images

“Fake it ‘til you make it” has become shorthand for people struggling in various aspects of life, with an emphasis on chasing happiness. If you’re feeling down, the advice goes, try to smile. Maybe the physical manifestation of feeling good can lift your spirits. It’s known as the “facial feedback hypothesis.”

It’s a crude bit of advice, but does it ever work? A new study indicates that the answer is yes.

A paper published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour and led by Nicholas Coles of Stanford recruited 3878 people from different countries and negotiated a little misdirection. To make sure they wouldn’t skew the results, none of the participants knew the study was about how an artificial smile might influence their mood: They were given “decoy” instructions, like hand gestures, to obfuscate the real intent of trying to see if a forced smirk worked.

The volunteers smiled when placing a pen between their teeth, mimicking a photo of a smiling actor, or simply being told to smile. Others maintained a neutral expression. They were then given a questionnaire looking into their happiness and anxiety levels, along with a math problem—again, to obscure the true intent of the research.

The result? Happiness appeared to be mildly increased in those smiling or mimicking a smiling actor when compared to those holding a fixed expression. The pen-in-mouth task appeared to produce less of a change, likely because it’s a product of a physical object creating a physical change and doesn't involve the same muscles used in smiling.

Coles told The Times of Israel that “the conscious experience of emotion must be at least partially based on bodily sensations."

While smiling might influence mood, how that happens is still open to discussion. It’s possible smiling prompts positive emotional feedback from others, which can influence how a person feels. Or, the physiological act of smiling might stimulate biological processes. Either way, smiling even when you don’t feel like it could be the boost you need.

[h/t Science Alert]