The Smiling Hack
In the middle of a pandemic, with economic and political unrest growing everywhere and the promise of an ugly election cycle coming up, it can may sound ridiculous to tell you to smile. But a recent study from the University of South Australia helps back up the pre-existing claim that the simple act of smiling can actually improve your mood.
How do you study something like smiles? The research had subjects engage in covert smiling--that is, moving their facial muscles in the pattern of a smile without being explicitly told to make a happy face. Instead, they were instructed to hold a pen between their teeth, which naturally forces the mouth and lips into something very smile-like.
Participants were then told to interpret the moods on pictures of faces, and then to do the same on point-light motion images, from sad walking videos to happy walking videos. Those holding a pen in their teeth (covert smiling) were found to perceive the faces and the videos in a more positive light.
Why does this work?
The lead researcher, University of South Australia's Dr. Fernando Marmolejo-Ramos, explained: “In our research we found that when you forcefully practice smiling, it stimulates the amygdala—the emotional center of the brain—which releases neurotransmitters to encourage an emotionally positive state. For mental health, this has interesting implications. If we can trick the brain into perceiving stimuli as ‘happy’, then we can potentially use this mechanism to help boost mental health.”
In other words, you don't have to start out feeling happy in order to reap the mood benefits of smiling. Instead, the act of contorting your mouth itself can boost your mood. So even when outside circumstances are challenging, remember to periodically check in with yourself and give a smile. If you don't have anything to smile about in that moment, you can always try the pen-between-the-teeth trick.
“A ‘fake it ’til you make it’ approach could have more credit than we expect," said Marmolejo-Ramos.