They say a fake smile makes you happy. People across generations and continents have said that for ages. But is it true? What does science say? The answer might surprise you.
“Why don’t you smile more often? It will make you happy!”
I got that advice 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 does it always hold? If we put on a smile, even when we are 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 a piece of anecdotal advice that has served us across generations and continents.
What we could do better is find out for how long has this been doing the rounds in the scientific community.
Expressions Make You Feel 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 are smiling without any non-emotional reasons to smile, then you must be happy. And if you are wearing a frown, then your mind reasons you are probably sad.
Laird’s based his paper on two studies with 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 “the subjects described themselves as happier when they were in a smile expression, and angrier when they were in a frown expression.”
It was like 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 said your expression can make you feel the emotion.
Suppose you are a young person stranded in a late-evening party full of serious people in formal suits. You are feeling awful. Then you could force yourself to smile. This would make you feel happier, according to the hypothesis.
Pen In The Mouth Experiment
Almost a decade and a half later, another psychological experiment on similar lines took place. It 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 was a series of cartoons put before them.
The students taking part first held a 12-mm thick felt-tipped marker tightly between their pouted lips. Just imagine yourself pursing your lips as if trying to whistle and holding a pen within the lips.
And then hold the same pen between their front teeth while keeping the lips drawn out as if to “say cheese.”
See the picture below.
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 the responses, the researchers concluded the participants who were made to smile judged the cartoons 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! Suddenly, people everywhere were pointing out to whoever looked glum that faking smiles would make them happier. A generously offered anecdotal advice now became science-backed advice:
Research says that whenever you are in a grim mood, you can feel better just by forcing yourself to smile.
Even as recently 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?
A Twist In The Tale
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 another crucial part – replication.
Replication is when you get the same result when an experiment gets repeated.
If the results of any research can be replicated, it means the conclusions hold and are more likely correct. As the educational site ck-12 explains it,
Replication is important in science, so scientists can check their work. No replication means no proof that your theory works as you say.
Now, the twist in the tale played out this way: 17 independent labs ran the make-me-smile test, but they found no effect of mouth position on how happy they felt.
The psychologists could not replicate that famous result of the 1988 pen-in-mouth experiment.
In 17 different laboratories around the world with almost 1900 participants, the experimenters could not replicate the results. Not even once.
A Registered Replication Report (RRR) in the Perspectives on Psychological Science was brought out by 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 all of us happy.
Who Won The To-And-Fro
Want to know what the ironic part of the 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. Eat that!
In the initial stages, Strack even gave his generous advice to the researchers who conducted the replication study. The psychology community applauded Strack, a social psychologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, for his brave offer.
Obviously, Strack expected the new experiment to confirm his original findings.
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 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 result from 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.
- 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 the cameras pointing at the students who are biting the pen reduce their happiness. We are waiting to read what they find.
So, the ultimate answer to if a fake smile can make you happy is, as of now: We cannot say for sure if a fake smile can make you genuinely 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 learned during evolution.
Your smile lets others know that you’re not harmful or baleful.
If you are 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.
Some people are too tired to smile at you. Give them one of yours, as none needs a smile so much as he who has no more to give.
So smile. Even if you call me riding high on optimism there.
Happiness is a moving target if you pursue it. Everybody seems to desire it in direct or indirect ways. Check out the 10 best happiness interventions from positive psychology.
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy – a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular science articles on positive psychology and related medical topics.
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