My number one impulse when someone tells me, super helpfully, to “turn that frown upside-down!,” is to ram a mid-century coffee table into his or her shins. Like oh, sure, let me climb on these monkey bars, hang from my knees and turn that shit around real quick.
Except a study was published in 2012 about the pros of forced smiles. It’s called “Grin and Bear It! The Influence of Manipulated Facial Expression on the Stress Response.” The findings show that even a fake-smile* can reduce stress levels. (*169 people participated, and some of their mouths were held into a smile with chopsticks.)
Smiling while stressed creeps me out. It reminds me of Jack Nicholson in The Shining or a pissed-off cat before it attacks. However, when I came across this experiment in the why-is-it-still-winter part of March (mid-optimism month, no less), just after I’d listened to a Ted Talk by Amy Cuddy about body language and how it can positively affect performance and related success, I figured I had nothing to loose but my teeth. So I tried it.
For all of March, rather than cry, nap or bite the ear off of my opponent during times of stress, I forced myself to smile. It worked best when I was cranky at work, in traffic or stuck in an elevator, less-so when I was in a full-blown spiral of deadline-induced terror — but it worked. My mood change for the incremental better when I made like an Employee of the Month and warmed up the apples of my cheeks.
There’s likely the added element of intent here; I wanted to be in a better mood. I didn’t want to be cranky. I had this story to write, too, and it’s always easier to write when I’m not like, “Well, my own experiment was totally wrong and basically that was all for nothing so here’s this dumb sentence anyway because I’m on deadline.” Still. If a hint of smirk can make me feel like less of a grouch, I’m all for it. Cue the inter-species friendship videos and that kid saying, “An avocado, thanks!” on repeat.
Stress is one thing, though. Can faking a smile actually make you more happy? Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness and Professor of Psychology at UC Riverside, spoke with me about whether or not this was possible.
“You don’t want to conflate being cheery and smiling with happiness. Happy people smile more genuinely, but being happy isn’t about looking happy. You can be happy, content, at peace without smiling. Happiness is internal, and it’s subjective.” She reminded me that people can be cheery and smiley, but not happy.
I brought up Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk about “power posing — standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident.” In it, Cuddy explained how the stance’s effect on testosterone and cortisol levels can make us more brave, and how bravery can, in turn, make us victorious. Isn’t a smile kind of like a power stance for your face?
“The research on posture shows it can make you feel a bit more powerful,” she said, “but at best, posture has small effects on mood and happiness. If you want to be happier, smiling is not the first strategy I would suggest.” Instead, if you’re looking to be happier, Lyubomirsky suggests centering your efforts around the following:
– Helping others
– Interacting with others
– Focusing on positive relationships
– Savoring good experiences
– Gratitude (having it, acknowledging it, expressing it)
– Meaningful work
– Living in the present and truly enjoying it (this is her favorite strategy at the moment)
“Happiness is a byproduct of these things. Act in ways that have the ultimate outcome of flourishing and happiness.” Lyubomirsky also stressed that there are hundreds of ways to become happier, not one singular solution or secret. Unfortunately, “There’s no magic pill.”
These “happiness strategies” can, however, be positive supplements to the treatment of mental-health conditions. For example, depression. “People who are depressed and seek treatment don’t want to just be not depressed. If a depressed person’s mood is at a negative seven, the goal is not zero. The goal is positive four, five, six. Happiness strategies can complement mental-health treatment in this way.”
On the topic of smiling as it relates to happiness, she said this: “Smiling has positive snowball effects. Research shows that a forced smile can make you feel better, which can lead people to approach you and like you more, which will make you even happier, and so on.” That means that if I smile and you see me smile, you’re more likely to smile. So, ready?
One, two, three…CHEESE!
Illustration by GraphicaArtis via Getty Images; collage by Edith Young.