The science behind why smiling can literally make you happier

Everyone smiles when they’re happy. But, what about smiling in the face of sadness? Can forcing a smile even while feeling blue elevate one’s mood?

According to countless pop songs and concerned mothers, the answer to that question is yes, but up until now, science had never weighed in on the question of whether or not the world really does smile back at us when we’re smiling.

Now, a new study conducted at the University of South Australia is offering up some legitimate evidence that smiling amid a bad mood can trick the mind into feeling more positive. In short, when an individual’s facial muscles are arranged to smile, the mind picks up on that and assumes it’s time to start feeling good again.

“When your muscles say you’re happy, you’re more likely to see the world around you in a positive way,” says lead researcher and human and artificial cognition expert Dr. Fernando Marmolejo-Ramos in a university release. “In our research, we found that when you forcefully practice smiling, it stimulates the amygdala – the emotional center of the brain – which releases neurotransmitters to encourage an emotionally positive state.

Besides just proving that Frank Sinatra isn’t a liar, these findings are full of mental health implications. Considering how complex, individualized, and nuanced depression is as an illness, it’s almost unbelievable to think that something as simple as smiling can help. But, sometimes it’s the simplest solutions that offer a surprising amount of relief.

Moreover, due to the current viral state of the world, it’s never been easier to fall into a bad mood filled with depressing thoughts. If cracking a smile a few extra times per day can help us all stay positive, it’s at least worth a try.

“For mental health, this has interesting implications. If we can trick the brain into perceiving stimuli as ‘happy’, then we can potentially use this mechanism to help boost mental health,” Dr. Marmolejo-Ramos comments.

During the experimental phase of this study, researchers were able to illustrate that our actions (smiling) have a direct influence on our perception of the world around us. When an individual is smiling, they tend to interpret other people’s facial expressions and bodily movements more positively.

This was achieved by gathering a group of participants and asking them to place a pen in their mouth between their teeth. This served to recreate the facial muscular positioning of a smile. Then, participants were asked to evaluate the facial expressions of some other people, sometimes with the pen in their mouth and sometimes pen-free. Participants were also shown super-short (1 second) clips of figures walking in different manners.

Across both conditions, participants felt more “positive emotions” while viewing the facial expressions and walking clips with the pens in their teeth. Essentially, study subjects viewed other people’s faces and movements as being much happier and friendlier when they were smiling themselves.

So, on days when it feels like the entire world is out to get us, choosing to smile for a little bit should go a long way toward changing that perception for the better.

“In a nutshell, perceptual and motor systems are intertwined when we emotionally process stimuli,” Dr. Marmolejo-Ramos concludes. “A ‘fake it ’til you make it’ approach could have more credit than we expect.”

The full study can be found here, published in Experimental Psychology.