STANFORD, Calif. — Smile and the whole world really does smile with you, suggests a new study. Posing with a cheesy grin for selfies and social media posts can actually help cheer people up, according to researchers at Stanford University.
One theory to explain the discovery is that our emotions are the result of sensations in the body, such as a rising heartbeat, causing fear or excitement. Scientists say it is the same with smiling — with the sensation of a grin evoking happiness within.
“The stretch of a smile can make people feel happy and the furrowed brow can make people feel angry; thus, the conscious experience of emotion must be at least partially based on bodily sensations,” says lead author Dr. Nicholas Coles, a Stanford research scientist, in a university release.
Dr. Coles and his team first analyzed previous studies and identified evidence that supported the concept that smiling can in fact make you happier.
He then joined forces with other scientists to create a new experiment under the name, The Many Smiles Collaboration. The researchers studied 3,878 people from 19 countries, with participants split into three equal groups.
In each, half looked at cheerful images of puppies, kittens, flowers, and fireworks, and the other half looked at a blank screen. While looking at these images, one group had to put a pen in their mouth to mimic the act of smiling. Another group had to copy the facial expression of photos of smiling actors, and the final group moved the corners of their lips towards their ears and lifted their cheeks using only the muscles in their face.
After completing this task, each person viewed the images or the blank screen again but had to keep a neutral facial expression. After each test, the participants rated how happy they were feeling.
To disguise their goal, researchers mixed in several other small tasks to keep the participants from knowing the true aim of the experiment. The data they collected revealed that there was a significant increase in happiness from participants mimicking smiling photos or pulling their mouth to their ears.
How you fake a smile may be equally important
These results show that there is strong evidence that posed smiles can, in fact, make us happier. However, they did not find a strong mood change in those using the pen-in-mouth technique.
“The effect wasn’t as reliable with the pen-in-mouth condition,” Coles says. “We’re not sure why. Going into the study, we assumed that all three techniques created the correct muscular configuration for an expression of happiness. But we found some evidence that the pen-in-mouth condition may not be actually creating an expression that closely resembles smiling.”
The researchers believe this could be due to the amount of teeth clenching needed, which isn’t usually normal in a genuine smile.
There have been multiple studies both disproving and proving this theory. Previous research revealed that the pen-in-mouth technique did work, as people carrying out this task found a series of comics funnier when they were holding a pen in their teeth.
Other research, however, such as a study conducted by 17 different labs in 2016, tried and failed to replicate these results, creating doubt around the theory.
“Over the past few years, the science took one step back and a few steps forward. But now we’re closer than ever to understanding a fundamental part of the human condition: emotion,” Coles continues.
“We experience emotion so often that we forget to marvel at just how incredible this ability is. But without emotion, there’s no pain or pleasure, no suffering or bliss, and no tragedy and glory in the human condition,” the researcher concludes. “This research tells us something fundamentally important about how this emotional experience works.”
The study is published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.
South West News Service writer Alice Clifford contributed to this report.