As the famous Nat King Cole song goes, “you’ll find that life is still worthwhile, if you just smile”. The idea that the act of smiling will make us feel better is one that has been around for centuries and is a part of what is known as facial feedback hypothesis. Even Charles Darwin believed in the matter, proposing that facial expressions didn’t only reflect emotions, but also causes them. In the 19th century, psychologist William James went so far as to say that if a person does not express an emotion, they have no felt it at all.
Is this really true? Or is it just an old wives tale? A tradition passed down through the years that never had any merit in the first place?
There have been many recent studies upon the subject. Just this February psychologists from the University of Cardiff in Wales conducted an experiment into people whose ability to frown was compromised by botox injections. They administered a questionnaire on anxiety and depression to a sample of 25 females and found that the half who had received botox reported higher rates of happiness, and less anxiety, than the other half. This therefore supports the theory of facial feedback hypothesis.
However, this study was gender biased (as it was only done on women) and so it’s still uncertain as to whether the theory can be applied to men. As well as this, the experimental design was a questionnaire, and so the results may not be reliable as the participants could have lied.
The above study also suffers from a lack of internal validity. Whilst they may have found that the inablility to frown makes you happier, they haven’t actually seen whether the action of smiling improves your mood. This could mean that instead of smiling making you feel better, frowning just makes you feel worse.
Instead perhaps we should consider a less recent study that delves more into the subject matter we wish to discuss. In 1989, psychologist Robert Zajonc published one of the most significant studies on the emotional effect of producing a smile. This experiment often is replicated in psychology classes and seminars due to its high reliability and easy procedure, and is regarded well in the academic world.
In the study, participants repeated different vowel sounds that forced their faces into various expressions. A long “e” sound made them smile, as it stretched the corners of their mouths outward, and a “u” forced their mouths into a pouty expression that very much replicated a frown. Go ahead and try it now in a mirror if you don’t believe me.
Researchers found that the participants felt better after making the “e” sound than the “u” sound meaning that not only does this study support facial feedback hypothesis, but it also points towards smiling as a cause of happiness.
The next question that must obviously be posed is, why is this? What is it in smiling that causing such a rush of endorphins?
There is no conclusive evidence explaining why, but some researchers hypothesise that it could be down to biology. Studies have shown that a cooler brain creates good emotions, and vice versa. When smiling, certain facial muscles stretch and tighten, and in turn this constricts the veins. This would limit the amount of blood flowing to the brain and less blood volume means a lower temperature of said blood.
When this blood reaches the brain it would then lead to a temperature drop there and, if research is correct, a happy feeling would be triggered.
Not everyone believe this theory though and there is not yet enough evidence to prove it. Some other researchers believe that smiling can reduce the intensity of the body’s stress responses, and this is why it in turn make us feel happier.
For now though we have no definitive idea of what causes happiness when smiling. What’s your opinion on the matter? Which cause do you side with, or do you think it’s something else entirely?