Can Smiling Really Make You Happier?

Public Domain. Emmett Kelly with Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus/Wikimedia Commons

Psychologists have been disagreeing about this for a century; now a new meta-analysis sheds some light on the debate.

When times are challenging and resilience is crucial, having a secret turbo-charge for happiness could certainly come in handy. For ages people have said that the simple act of smiling can boost one's mood – and alternatively, that frowning can make one feel down – but psychologists have long disagreed about whether facial expressions can lead to the emotions related to those expressions.

Now a team of researchers from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and Texas A&M; have co-authored a paper taking a deeper look at the question. In their research, they looked at nearly 50 years of data testing and found that, yes, smiling really can make people feel happier. A little bit, at least.

"Conventional wisdom tells us that we can feel a little happier if we simply smile. Or that we can get ourselves in a more serious mood if we scowl," said Nicholas Coles, UT PhD student in social psychology and lead researcher on the paper. "But psychologists have actually disagreed about this idea for over 100 years."

In their meta-analysis, Coles and his team looked at data from 138 studies including more than 11,000 participants from across the globe.

"Some studies have not found evidence that facial expressions can influence emotional feelings," Coles said. "But we can't focus on the results of any one study. Psychologists have been testing this idea since the early 1970s, so we wanted to look at all the evidence."

After crunching the numbers, they concluded that facial expressions do indeed have an impact on feelings. And it's not just smiling and happiness, they found that scowling makes people feel angrier and frowning makes them feel sadder.

Alas, the impact doesn't appear to be dramatic. As described in the paper, "the overall effect of facial feedback was significant but small."

"We don't think that people can smile their way to happiness," Coles said. "But these findings are exciting because they provide a clue about how the mind and the body interact to shape our conscious experience of emotion. We still have a lot to learn about these facial feedback effects, but this meta-analysis put us a little closer to understanding how emotions work."

But hey, as far as I'm concerned, any little push towards happiness could come in handy. As Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”

The study, "A Meta-Analysis of the Facial Feedback Literature: Effects of Facial Feedback on Emotional Experience Are Small and Variable," was published in Psychological Bulletin.