“You’ll find that life is still worthwhile if you just smile”: The Science Behind Your Smile Part 6

Can just smiling make you happy?

What if smiling, if even you weren’t happy, could make you feel better?  For psychologists, this is called the “facial feedback” hypothesis [1].  To test whether smiling can make you feel happier, researchers conducted an experiment where the participants were asked to hold a pencil in their mouths while watching a series of positive and negative videos.  The people were split into four groups, each holding the pencil differently.  One group was asked to hold the pencil between their teeth and pull their cheeks back, creating a true (Duchenne) smile.  The other groups held the pencils in a way to create a social smile, an open mouth, or a grimace.  As a cover story, the participants were told that they were looking the easiest way for quadriplegic patients to use a device in their mouths, so they had no idea that the experiment had anything to do with facial expressions.

The people who held the pencil in a way that created a true smile rated their experience of viewing funny videos as nearly twice as positive as the other women.  But smiling had no impact on the experience of viewing the disturbing videos.  The physical act of smiling enhanced the their experience of positive emotions, providing more evidence for the influence of smiling.  Others have found that just the act of smiling improved the mood of a group of adults [2].  Smiling may not make you happy when you are having a really bad day, but it could help make a so-so day good or a good day great. Maybe the idea of “fake it ‘til you make it” is not so far-fetched.

What about when we see other people smiling?

Perhaps even more intriguing is the role of mirror neurons in responding to and making facial expressions.  Mirror neurons were first discovered in the brain in the late 1990s.  These neurons play a central role in imitation and are activated both when you perform an action and when you observe the same action being made by another person.  Mirror neurons seem to play an important role in empathy and recognizing emotions in other people, and scientists have found that mirror neurons do not function properly in children with autism [3].  People with autism usually have difficulty recognizing and responding to emotions in other people and this discovery may help to explain this deficit.

Mirror neurons appear to be of central importance in creating and responding to smiles and other facial expressions. The very same mirror neurons are activated whether we make or see a smile.  This small area of the left frontal cortex of the brain plays a major role in the feeling and interpreting expressions of happiness.  Similar results have been found in studies where MRIs are performed on people as they observe and make facial expressions.  The same area of the prefrontal cortex is activated both in making and viewing expressions [4].  It seems that we are wired not only to feel good by smiling, but also by seeing others smile.

References

1. Soussignan, R., Duchenne smile, emotional experience, and autonomic reactivity: A test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Emotion, 2002. 2(1): p. 52-74.

2. Neuhoff, C.C. and C. Schaefer, Effects of laughing, smiling, and howling on mood. Psychological Reports, 2002. 91(3): p. 1079.

3. Dapretto, M., et al., Understanding emotions in others: mirror neuron dysfunction in children with autism spectrum disorders. Nature Neuroscience, 2006. 9(1): p. 28-30.

4. Hennenlotter, A., et al., A common neural basis for receptive and expressive communication of pleasant facial affect. Neuroimage, 2005. 26(2): p. 581-591.