Say Cheese: Studies show smiling improves mood

Karl Sadkowski/Opinion Editor

Try this mind trick: smile, and notice your mood improve as a result. Many believe facial expressions follow felt emotions; however, facial expressions also have the power to influence emotions. Facial expressions made intentionally can change a person’s mood, a unique concept growing in popularity among psychologists.

The first to suggest that physical responses influence feelings was Charles Darwin in 1872. William James later extrapolated on Darwin’s theory, a psychologist of the 19th century still held in great esteem by psychologists today. James asserted that if a person does not express an emotion, he does not feel it at all. Although today’s scientists would generally disagree, they do agree that the brain is an influence in emotion, as well as the face.

Malcolm Gladwell, a prominent staff writer with The New Yorker, authored a New York Times bestselling book entitled Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking in 2007 about rapid cognition; that is, making snap inferences about situations in the blink of an eye. At one point, Gladwell discusses a study conducted by Paul Ekman, Wallace Friesan and Robert Levenson on how replicating expressions of different emotions affect their own moods. Gladwell writes, “They monitored the bodily indices of anger, sadness, and fear—heart rate and body temperature—in two groups. The first group was instructed to remember and relive a particularly stressful experience. The other was told to simply produce a series of facial movements, as instructed by Ekman—to ‘assume the position,’ as they say in acting class. The second group, the people who were pretending, showed the same physiological responses as the first.”

A separate experiment involved three test groups, which rated their levels of happiness before and after the experiment: the first group looked at pictures of different facial expressions, the second mimicked facial expressions and the third mimicked facial expressions while looking at a mirror. Of the three groups, the third offered the strongest results in mood change after the experiment, followed by the second group. Members of the first group experienced no mood change. Why these differences? Introspection may explain why the third group rated the highest levels of happiness. Because these group members watched themselves in a mirror when smiling, they in turn became more conscious of their own thoughts and emotions changing with their smiles.

But the result of smiling reaches farther than introspection. Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar of Oxford University claims that the physical muscular movements involved in producing a smile trigger endorphins, brain chemicals known for naturally drugging people into feel-good states of emotion.
Despite the artificiality of a forced smile, you may surprise yourself as your smile reflects back from your bathroom mirror as you prepare for seven (possibly eight) sometimes-stressful hours of school. The concept of mood-enhancing facial expressions is still a theory, but it’s a theory gaining momentum. So try it. Trick yourself.

You’ll smile about it later.

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