Even if you’re faking it, smiling makes you feel happier, international study finds

‘It’s true — when you smile it makes you happier,’ says Israeli psychologist from the 19-country research group, suggesting smile muscles trigger happy feelings

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative image: a group of people smiling (Andrea Migliarini via iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative image: a group of people smiling (Andrea Migliarini via iStock by Getty Images)

Even a faked smile makes you feel happier, a huge international study published Thursday has concluded.

Designed in part by Israeli scientists, the 19-country peer-reviewed research found that people were significantly happier when told to smile than if they determined their own facial expressions.

The key finding in the study, published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, came from telling study participants to either mimic happy expressions on photos of actors’ faces or pull their mouth towards their ears using their hands to simulate a smile.

They reported a noticeable increase in happiness which participants in control groups didn’t have.

The control groups were told to give whatever facial reactions they felt like. Importantly, the control group for those mimicking actors were also shown the faces of the smiling actors, so it received the same mood stimulation as the mimickers.

The scientists who collaborated on the study were trying to settle an old debate.

Some set out as proponents of the so-called feedback theory, which argues that when the muscles used to smile are activated, signals are sent to the brain which make people happy, and in turn cause further smiling. Others set out as opponents.

Illustrative image: a man using his fingers to make himself smile. (ajr_images via iStock by Getty Images)

“This was an adversarial collaboration, bringing together scientists from both camps,” Dr. Niv Reggev, Ben Gurion University psychologist and head of the Israeli team, told The Times of Israel.

“I had been on the fence, like some others, but now believe if you make people activate the right muscles by smiling, you can actually make them happier. It’s true — when you smile it makes you happier.”

The overall head of the study, Stanford University research scientist Nicholas Coles, said that the results indicate that “the conscious experience of emotion must be at least partially based on bodily sensations.”

Ben Gurion University psychologist Dr. Niv Reggev. (Courtesy: Ben Gurion University)

Each of the 3,878 participants in the study was given one of several sets of instructions.

One-third of the participants were shown smiling actors and asked either to mimic or react as they felt. A third was given instructions to move the corners of their lips toward their ears and lift their cheeks using only the muscles in their face. And a third were directed to place a pen in their mouth either horizontally, to force a smile, or vertically, to force a frown.

Participants didn’t know what was being researched. The scientists then mixed in several other small physical tasks and asked participants to solve simple math problems so that the topic of the study wasn’t obvious.

In the pen-in-mouth group, the smilers weren’t notably happier than others.

Reggev said he suspects this is because the pen doesn’t force the exact combination of muscle movements used in regular smiling. But in the other two groups, smilers were significantly happier when surveyed afterward.

“People have long said to smile even if you don’t feel it, and it’s very interesting to see how psychological research is, in some ways, rediscovering ancient truths.”

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