The Science Of Smiles, Real And Fake

Jul 1, 2019
Originally published on July 1, 2019 9:44 am

The notion that you can smile your way to happiness is an enduring one.

Back in the 1800s, Charles Darwin was among the first to come up with what modern scientists further developed into the "facial feedback hypothesis." That's the idea that smiling can make you happier and frowning can make you sadder or angrier — that changing your facial expression can intensify or even transform your mood.

Dick Van Dyke sang about the phenomenon — and so did Nat King Cole. And it is still taught in psychology classes today.

But researchers are now finding that this phenomenon may be more complicated than they once thought. A recent study that reviewed around 50 years of data, including the results of nearly 300 experiments testing the facial feedback theory, has found that if smiling boosts happiness, it's only by a tiny bit.

"I know when I'm sad and people tell me to smile, it just makes me more angry." - Nick Coles, social psychology researcher, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

After crunching all the numbers, the researchers say their results suggest that if 100 people smiled — all else equal among them — only about seven might expect to feel happier than if they hadn't smiled.

The study also looked at the effects of a number of other facial expressions, including scowling and frowning, and tried to more generally understand the extent to which positive facial expressions create positive emotions and negative facial expressions create negative emotions.

In each case, "the effects were extremely tiny," says Nick Coles, a social psychology Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who led the study. The results, published in the June issue of Psychological Bulletin, add to a debate that has been ongoing "for at least 100 years — since the dawn of psychology," Coles says.

That debate over whether the simple act of moving one's facial muscles into the shape of a smile can make one feel happier has grown especially heated in the past few years. In another study, published in 2016, 17 labs around the globe failed to replicate a seminal piece of research that had originally demonstrated a link between smiling and emotion.

That original study, published in 1988, found that people who were told to hold a pen between their teeth — forcing their faces into the shape of a smile — rated cartoons as funnier than did those who held a pen between their lips to make a pouty face. The participants didn't realize they were smiling or pouting — they believed they were testing out methods that disabled people could use to write.

"It was the first study that demonstrated that smiling could influence emotions even if the participants were not aware that they were actually smiling," Coles explains.

So it was a big blow when so many labs failed to reproduce the results. Still, in 2018, when researchers in Israel reran the experiment once more, they were able to replicate the results — as long as the participants weren't being observed or filmed.

"It gets complicated," says Paula Niedenthal, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who was not involved in the recent research.

Part of the reason for the disparate findings may be that there are lots of different kinds of smiles, Niedenthal says. "Not all smiles are genuine smiles of joy."

Some smiles are sarcastic — more like smirks. Some smiles beam. Others simper. There are subtle differences in the dynamics of each expression, and they're hard to re-create in a lab — with or without the aid of a pen.

Moreover, though most lab studies have found that there's no harm in smiling, recent research has found that, over time, habitually forcing your expression into the shape of a smile can have a negative effect.

For example, still another study published this year found that service workers who felt compelled to slap on a smile for customers all day had a higher risk of heavy drinking after work. That may be because disgruntled employees forced to provide service with a smile are unlikely to be wearing genuine, joyful grins, the researchers say.

"We should continue to look into this area, at the very least," Niedenthal says. All told, the cumulative research does seem to show that facial expressions have some effect on emotions. What's left to do now, she says, is to tease out the mechanisms and subtleties.

In the meantime, maybe hold back on telling people to turn their frowns upside down, Coles advises.

"Because, I know when I'm sad and people tell me to smile, it just makes me more angry," he says. And as far as the research indicates, "smiling is not going to make any important difference in your life."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Just to let you know, I'm smiling right now. In theory, this is good for me. And smiling can be good for you. Back in the 1800s, Charles Darwin suggested that smiling could improve your mood, and that idea is still taught in psychology class. But researchers are now finding this phenomenon is more complicated than they thought. Maanvi Singh reports.

MAANVI SINGH, BYLINE: Scientists call it the facial feedback hypothesis. Here's Dick Van Dyke explaining how it works.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUT ON A HAPPY FACE")

DICK VAN DYKE: (Singing) Gray skies are going to clear up. Put on a happy face. Brush off the clouds and cheer up. Put on a happy face.

SINGH: The idea is, physically expressing an emotion intensifies the feeling. So if you smile, you feel happier. If you frown, you feel angrier.

NICK COLES: This has sort of been a textbook psychological phenomenon.

SINGH: That's Nick Coles, a social psychologist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

COLES: I feel like a lot of people have heard at one point in their lives that they can smile their way to happiness, but psychologists have actually disagreed about this for, really, over a hundred years - since the dawn of psychology, really.

SINGH: So Coles decided to analyze 50 years of data, including nearly 300 separate experiments that tested the facial feedback theory. He and his colleagues found that smiling did increase happiness, but only a tiny bit. The data suggests that if 100 people smiled, only about seven would experience that mood boost.

COLES: These effects are extremely tiny. They're fascinating from the scientific perspective.

SINGH: Coles' study isn't the only one to question the facial feedback theory. Recently, researchers cast doubt on one of the seminal studies in the field.

COLES: It was the first study that demonstrated that smiling could influence emotions, even if the participants were not aware that they were actually smiling.

SINGH: Seventeen labs across the globe failed to replicate the findings, and only one succeeded. And there's more bad news. It seems that in some cases, forced smiling can backfire. Another recent study found that service workers who were compelled to slap on a smile for customers were more likely to drink heavily after work.

Paula Niedenthal, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wasn't involved in these recent studies. She says part of the problem may be that there are lots of different kinds of smiles.

PAULA NIEDENTHAL: There are multiple kinds of smiles, and they don't all relate to feelings of joy.

SINGH: Some smiles are sarcastic, more like smirks. Some smiles beam; others simper. And scientists are still trying to tease apart the relationship between genuine, joyful smiles and genuine joy. Until then, here's Coles' take.

COLES: I'm personally of the opinion that smiling is not going to make any important differences in your life.

SINGH: So for now, maybe hold back from telling people to turn their frowns upside down.

COLES: Because I know when I'm sad and people tell me to just smile through it, it just makes me more angry.

SINGH: For NPR News, I'm Maanvi Singh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.