That first infant smile lets you know that there is actually a person lurking inside that needy little body. The sleepless nights, fussy evenings, endless diapers and nonexistent personal time are all rewarded by his little face lighting up and smiling at you, his special person. “He likes me!” you think, until he beams that same smile at every breathing being that comes into his line of sight, including the dog.
An infant smile is a powerful connector – all of his important people bond with him over that smile, cementing their commitment to feed and care for him for just about forever. Smiling as adults connects us with the people around us as well, according to our childhood connections expert Kermit the Frog, who sang, “a smile connects us, you and me.” Recent research has shown that beyond connecting us to those around us, smiling affects how we feel.
Smile first, happiness later?
Often we smile because something makes us happy: a smiling infant, a funny joke or a thoughtful gift. Several studies have experimented with how manipulating a face into a smile can communicate happiness to the brain. Neuroscientist Alex Korb calls this phenomenon “facial feedback,” where the face forming itself into a smile tells the brain, “I’m happy,” whether the person is actually happy or not. (1) The following research supports the “I smile, therefore I’m happy” hypothesis, but check out the caveat at the end.
- Jokes are funnier when we smile beforehand. In the late 1980’s, researchers had subjects hold pencils between their teeth to arrange facial muscles into a smile-like expression. Another group put the pencil in the other way, pursing their lips around it (sort of frown-like) and the control group held the pencil in their hands. All groups then read cartoons and rated them on funniness. The “smile” group rated the cartoons as funniest and the “frown” group as the least funny. (1)
- Smiling causes the brain to perceive our social environment as happier. Participants were asked to view photos of smiling or neutral faces while making smiling, pursed lips or neutral faces as assigned. Researchers measured brain activity and found that when subjects made happy faces, they processed the photos of neutral faces similarly to the happy faces; the brains of those making neutral faces or pursing lips processed neutral faces significantly differently than happy faces. This suggests that smiling affects the way we process the emotions of others and causes us to perceive them as happier. (2)
- Botox keeps you smiling, does it make you happier? A study or two on botox might make you smile. Psychologists at University of Cardiff in Wales studied 25 women whose botox injections impaired their ability to frown. A questionnaire on anxiety and depression was administered to both the botox-injected, frown-impaired group and a control group without botox injections. The botox group perceived themselves to be happier and less anxious, even when controlling for perceived increased attractiveness due to the injections. (3)
- Again with the botox… In another botox-related experiment, Scientists at Technical University in Munich used MRI machines to scan botox recipients’ brains while they made angry faces. Compared with the no-botox control group, botox-injected participants registered lower activity in the amygdala, hypothalamus and brainstem (parts of the brain related to processing emotion). Their brains registered less anger than those without cheek-raising botox smiles. (4)
- Things are less gross with a smile. Another group of researchers in the Netherlands explored not being able to express disgust. One study group was asked to simply control their emotions while looking at gross images, the other study group put a pen between their teeth to simulate smiling, and the third group was allowed to react as they wished. Those unable to express their emotions reported being less disgusted at the images than the control group, but there was an interesting side effect. The two study groups performed poorly on memory tasks, and a fill-in-the blank test produced more negative words (e.g. gr_ss was more often filled in as gross than as grass than for those in the control group). This may suggest that repressing one’s emotions in order to smile anyway can negatively affect us. (5)
The caveat: While smiling increases our perception of our own happiness and also decreases our experience of negative emotions, staged smiling may have pitfalls. Repressing emotions and smiling anyway may allow those negative emotions to linger and seep out in other ways.
So smile, but don’t fake it! Look for things that make you happy, and raise those cheeks more on a daily basis.
Read more on smiling and happiness
The science behind the smile – resilience and “synthetic” happiness
There’s magic in your smile – how smiling affects brain, body and others
Smiling is Infectious – a poem for the poetry minded
- Korb A, Smile: a powerful tool. Psychology Today. Aug. 1, 2012.
- Sel J, Calvo-Merino B, Tuettenberg S, Forster B. When you smile, the world smiles at you: ERP evidence for self-expression effects on face processing. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2015.
- Lewis MB and Bowler PJ, Botulinum toxin cosmetic therapy correlates with a more positive mood. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. 2009;8(1):24-26.
- Wenner M, Smile! It could make you happier. Scientific American website. Sep. 1, 2009.
- Grob J. Facial muscle relaxant treatments have a negative effect on emotions. University of Groningen website. Mar. 11, 2009.