Turn That Frown Upside Down: How Smiling Gets You Through Tough Times
The Whole World Smiles Back at You by Zanastardust @ FlickrPhoto Credit: Zanastardust

We’ve all heard the idea that having a positive attitude can help us cope with stressful events, but can putting a smile on your face really change how you feel about a situation? Psychologists have found that it may indeed be able to, at least under certain circumstances. In today’s post, I’ll talk about some research on the benefits of smiling, and how we can use this research to improve our well-being.

Can smiles change how we feel? The idea that facial expressions can affect our emotions is an old idea in psychology. Several decades ago, the psychologist Fritz Strack came up with an idea called the facial feedback hypothesis, which suggests that just the act of forming a facial expression can cause us to feel that emotion. In one study, he used a clever procedure to make people smile (without them being aware of it) and then to measure its effects on them. In the study, participants were made to hold a pen with their lips, which prevents them from smiling, or with their teeth, which encourages them to smile (if you want to get a sense of what the study was like for participants, take a minute to grab a pen and try this out for yourself: when you have the pen in your lips, it’s difficult to smile without dropping the pen, but when you have it in your teeth, it’s almost impossible not to smile). He asked participants to read cartoons while holding the pen, and he found that participants holding the pen in their teeth actually found the cartoons funnier. So it seems like smiling may actually be able to put us in a happier and more joyful mood.

In another study, participants were again asked to hold a pen in their teeth to encourage either smiling or a neutral expression. This time, they read sentences, some of which described pleasant things and some of which described unpleasant things. The researchers found that participants read the sentences describing pleasant events faster when they were smiling (compared to when they weren’t smiling). So forming a smile on our faces may make it easier for us to recognize positive things.

Can smiling help us cope with stress? In recent years, psychologists have begun to study whether smiling might have a protective effect in times of stress. According to the psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, positive emotions have the potential to literally “undo” the effects of negative emotions, and smiling may be one aspect of positive emotion that plays a role in this. In one study, participants were asked to watch a sad video, a task which usually causes stress and an increase in cardiovascular activity. However, the researchers videotaped the participants in order to assess whether they smiled at all while watching the video. A little over two-thirds of the participants smiled at least once while watching the video, and these participants recovered from watching the video (that is, their cardiovascular system went back to baseline) faster than the participants who did not smile.

However, one limitation of this study was that we don’t know for sure that smiling caused people to recover from stress faster. It’s possible that some other factor caused people to be more resilient under stress and to smile more. In order to test out the idea smiling is helping people when under stress, the psychologists Tara Kraft and Sara Pressman conducted a study somewhat similar to the one run by Fritz Strack. Participants held a pair of chopsticks with their lips (to encourage a neutral facial expression), or with their teeth (to encourage smiling), or with the teeth on both sides of their mouth (to encourage an especially warm type of smile called a Duchenne smile). While holding the chopsticks, participants were asked to do two stressful tasks: drawing a difficult shape under time pressure and putting their hand in a bucket of ice water—both of which are tasks that made the participants’ heart rates increase. After the tasks were over, the researchers measured how quickly participants’ heart rates recovered. Participants who smiled (especially if they had made a Duchenne smile) had lower heart rates when recovering from the stressful tasks. This study suggests that smiling can impact our stress levels: if we smile, we may recover from stressful events faster.

Can you fake it ‘til you make it? So, if smiling has all of these benefits, should you fake a smile when you’re in a bad mood? Forming a fake smile may actually be good for short, unavoidable stressors (Sara Pressman mentions getting a vaccine as one example of this). So next time you’re getting a flu shot, someone cuts you off while you’re driving, or you learn that your plane flight was canceled, try smiling and see whether it helps you out.

While smiling (whether genuine or fake) seems to be helpful during short-lived stressors, faking a smile may have negative consequences over the long term. For example, a study of people working in customer service found that forming fake smiles was a risk factor for employee burnout. Another study found that fake smiles at work were associated with more negative moods, but smiles that resulted from thinking about positive things led to an improvement in moods. So if you’re feeling down or under stress, forcing a smile might not always be the best thing. Instead, try remembering a funny joke you heard, watching a favorite YouTube clip, or looking through some photographs of a happy memory. You can even build “happy activities” such as these into your daily routine by having favorite cartoons handy at your desk, keeping favorite photos in your wallet, or using a happiness app. These activities that make you form a genuine smile are probably the ones that are most likely to benefit you in the long run.

In summary, we’ve all been told that we should smile more when we’re in a bad mood, and that putting a smile on your face might actually change your attitude. Psychologists have found recently that this can indeed work—although it may be best to think of something that makes you happy, rather than forcing a smile. So next time you feel stressed, try this out for yourself: take a moment to focus on something that makes you smile, and see if you notice a difference!

Additional Reading:

Fritz Strack, Leonard Martin, & Sabine Stepper: Inhibiting and Facilitating Conditions of The Human Smile: A Nonobtrusive Test Of The Facial Feedback Hypothesis

Paula Niedenthal: Embodying Emotion

Barbara Fredrickson & Robert Levenson, Positive Emotions Speed Recovery from the Cardiovascular Sequelae of Negative Emotions

Tara Kraft & Sara Pressman: Grin and Bear It: The Influence of Manipulated Facial Expression on the Stress Response

Jason Marsh: Fake Smiles May Be Bad for Your Health


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