“Why don’t you smile more often? It will make you happy!”
That was an advice I got recently. Many of us get that advice. Leo Widrich, Co-Founder of Buffer, was once told by one of his teachers, “Why don’t you smile more? Go learn how to do it!”
But is it always hold true? If we put on a smile even when we’re not feeling happy, does it lift our mood?
Can a fake smile make you happy?
Will a plastic smile bring a positive difference in your mood and life?
Popular wisdom says so.
But how did this story originate? No one knows for sure. It could well be an anecdotal advice that has served us across generations and continents.
What we could do better is to find out since when has this been doing the rounds in the scientific community.
Facial Feedback: Expressions to Emotions
It goes back to a 1974 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by James Laird. It proposed the theory of self-attribution of emotion. In simple terms, Laird suggested that if you’re smiling without any non-emotional reasons to smile, then you must be happy.
And, if you’re wearing a frown, then your mind reasons that you’re probably sad.
Laird’s paper was based on two studies with a total of 77 participants. Using an elaborate contraption of electrodes attached all over their faces, he manipulated the facial expressions of these students — without their knowing — as they watched cartoons.
It concluded that “the subjects described themselves as happier when they were in a smile expression, and angrier when they were in a frown expression.”
It was similar to the earlier facial feedback hypothesis, which said that your face muscles can send feedback to your brain and influence your feelings and behavior. First suggested by Charles Darwin and later by William James, in simple words, it says your expression can make you feel the emotion.
Suppose you’re a young guy stranded in a late-evening party full of serious people in formal suits. You’re feeling awful. Then you could force yourself to smile. This would make you feel happier, according to the hypothesis.
Almost a decade and half later, another psychological experiment on similar lines took place. This was the famous 1988 “pen-in-mouth” experiment by Fritz Strack, Leonard Martin and Sabine Stepper. Their subjects were to hold pencils in their mouths while rating how funny were a series of cartoons put before them.
Participating students were first asked to hold a 12-mm thick felt-tipped marker tightly with their pouted lips. Just imagine yourself pursing your lips as if whistling, and holding a pen within.
And then hold the same pen tightly between their front teeth while keeping the lips drawn out as if to “say cheese.”
In each posture, they were to rate some cartoons from The Far Side on a scale from 0 (not at all funny) to 9 (very funny). Based on their responses, the researchers concluded that participants who were made to smile — by holding the pen between the teeth — judged the cartoons as funnier than those who were led to frown.
So, there was now the scientific proof that putting on a fake smile can make you happy. And boy, it was a rage. All of a sudden, people everywhere were pointing out to whoever looked glum that faking smiles would make them happier.
A generously offered anecdotal advice now became a science-backed advice: “Research says that whenever you’re in a bad mood, you can feel better just by forcing yourself to smile.”
Even as recent as May 2016, a post in Psychology Today was advocating the case for fake smiles.
But, is that really true? Could smiling make us happy, and frowning make us sad?
Twist In The Tale, As Science Checks Out
Let’s see how science works. Science is our way of gathering knowledge by observation and experimentation. A small point; it doesn’t end there. There is a another important part – replication. Replication is when you get the same result when an experiment is repeated.
If results of any research can be replicated, it means the conclusions are more likely to be correct. As the educational site ck-12 explains it, “Replication is important in science so scientists can check their work.” No replication, and it means no proof that your theory works as you say.
Now, the twist in the tale of the “plastic smiles make you happy” experiment was played out this way: That famous result of the 1988 pen-in-mouth experiment could not be replicated. Not even once.
In 17 different laboratories around the world involving almost 1900 participants, the experimenters could not replicate the results. A Registered Replication Report (RRR) in the Perspectives on Psychological Science was brought out by the authors Wagenmakers, Beek, Dijkhoff and Gronau.
They wrote, “Finally, 0 out of 17 intervals were qualitatively consistent with the facial feedback hypothesis in that they were strictly positive.”
That’s 0 — Zero — out of 17. The results were remarkably null. It simply meant that Strack and his colleagues were wrong to conclude that social smiles make us happy.
The To And Fro
Know what the ironical part of the this whole replication controversy was? To begin with, actually it was Strack himself, the original researcher of the “pen-in-mouth” experiment, who had volunteered to offer his work up for replication. That.
In the initial stages, Strack even gave his generous advise to the researchers who conducted the replication study. Strack, a social psychologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, was applauded by the psychology community for his brave offer.
Obviously, he had expected his findings to be confirmed.
However, when he read the report, we guess it didn’t make him too happy. He started out by arguing that there were “several issues” in the RRR meta-study have led to the results not being replicated.
Then Strack concluded that since the study conditions were different from his original settings, the results were different too.
He shot out a write-up with the points that he thought had influenced the results to be different:
- The Subjects Were Aware: An overwhelming number of the participants were psychology students. So they already knew about the original experiment. It reduced the effect.
- The Far Side Cartoons Lost Fun: There is a question if the same cartoons — Gary Larson’s The Far Side — that were iconic in the 1980s would have the same effect on people thirty years later.
- The Cameras Dulled The Effect: The labs directed a camera at the participants. This, Strack says, may have induced a self-focus in the subjects, and tampered the results.
- The Small-Study Effects: He points out an oddity in the graphs that could be the result of data fishing, “without insinuating the possibility of a reverse p-hacking.”
One psychologist from the RRR team shot back point-wise in this blog post (that, believe me, even uses the F-word):
- If the psychology stream participants were aware of the 1988 experiment result, then why should it shrink the effect and not enhance it?
- The Far Side cartoons are still kind of funny enough. And why do the cartoons need to be “unambiguously funny”?
- The camera hypothesis is a novel one, and Strack should prove it since he proposed it. The burden of proof lies with him. (Whoa!)
- The report does not show any evidence reverse p-hacking, and its null result is robust enough to stand strong.
Last heard, Strack is collaborating with Israeli scientists to prove that cameras pointed at the students who were biting the pen, does reduce their happiness. We are waiting to hear what they find.
So, that’s how we have it for now: You can’t say for sure if faking smiles make you happy.
Meanwhile, till the dust settles on that issue, we can take heart in the fact that smiling does make us appear more sociable and likable. Why? Because smiling is a form of fear reaction that we learnt during evolution.
Your smile lets others know that you’re not harmful or baleful.
If you’re not in the mood for smiling, then you may try a fake smile.
That socially accepted fake smile may find someone who smiles back to you, and that moment may find you breaking into a genuine smile.
So smile. Even if you call me riding high on optimism there.
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