Faking It: Smile Therapy?

Don't throw those antidepressants out just yet-- smiling obviously won't cure clinical depression or solve the world's problems. But don't discount it entirely, either, because research shows that a smile can make things look a little sunnier.

At first, acting happy to feel happy might seem a strange reversal of the common belief that actions are driven by thoughts or feelings. But it’s true—clinical research studies show that just as happy emotions drive happy behaviors like smiling, happy behaviors foster happy feelings. The message highway between your brain and body runs in both directions.

Acting happy to elicit positive emotions is a lot like the counseling intervention of “acting as if.” “Acting as if” rests on the assumption that people act in accordance to their values and beliefs. The idea is that by choosing to act on less prominent (but more positive) beliefs about yourself and the world, you can learn to feel more comfortable with these positive behaviors and beliefs.

It’s a little like the “fake it ‘til you make it” cliché. Even though your smile may feel contrived and artificial at first, positive intention and practice gradually melt into a more genuine sense of awareness and appreciation.

Where the Body Leads, the Emotions Follow

One recent study demonstrated that facial expression and posture provoked related emotions. That tells us that if you smile, lift your chin, and stand upright, you’ll feel happy and confident. If you frown, shrug, or slump, you’ll feel sad or angry.

Not everyone is susceptible to this effect, but I can attest to its validity in my life. In high school, I tested a psychology teacher’s assertion that lifting one’s chin two inches would inspire confidence. While it took practice to overhaul my slouchy, angst-ridden teen posture, that slight adjustment profoundly impacted my posture and self-esteem. Even now, on days when I need a confidence boost I remember to keep my chin up. Literally.

Expression Overhaul

For years, I wore a serious, almost frowning expression by default. I didn’t like that people constantly asked me what was wrong, and I often heard comments about how “intimidating” I was. Even worse were the occasions when someone cheerfully urged me to “smile!” Those well-meaning remarks pushed my peeve button every time.

So, driven in part by a desire to avoid irritation, I attended more closely to my expression. I reminded myself to lift the edges of my mouth to a more neutral position, and I tried to smile as often as I could. Over time, people stopped seeing me as intimidating and didn’t ask me what was wrong as often. I was surprised to find that the transition happened internally as well—I even felt more tolerant and accepting of others. While I didn’t undergo a complete transformation, I was less angry and more hopeful. All from smiling a little more.

Smile Therapy

A character on the Ally McBeal television series engaged in what he called “smile therapy” when he felt especially distraught or uptight. When things went wrong, he pasted on a broad, toothy smile. The effect was comedic, but he was on to something.

Putting your smile muscles to work during times of stress changes your outlook for a couple of reasons. First, the brain interprets this muscle movement to mean that you’re happy or contented. Even holding a pencil horizontally between your teeth is enough to approximate a smile, as far as your brain is concerned.

Second, your mood and perceptions of neutral events grow more positive simply from “acting” happy. Happy behavior isn’t likely to erase the trauma of a crisis, but it will encourage you to view mundane events from a more generous perspective. An upbeat posture and expression primes your brain to give others the benefit of the doubt or to see the “lighter side.”

Besides these advantages, the sheer absurdity of smiling in moments of duress breaks the problem-centered mindset of anxiety and anger. When you take yourself less seriously, you can be a little gentler with everyone else, too.

You Get What You Give

Smiling signifies contentment to your brain, but it also reminds us to be aware of the signals we send to the world. If you project a scowl or frown as I once did, what kind of response do you expect to get?

In settings ranging from bedroom to boardroom, a smile is the best starting point for any interaction. Smiles project positive energy, confidence, and acceptance. A pleasant expression invites openness and collaboration. It’s a small gift that you can offer someone who might be caught up in a difficult day or a bad mood. And far from being a selfless act, it will improve your attitude as well.

Grin and Bear It

Life is full of disappointments and setbacks. Things go wrong every day. But it’s important to acknowledge that things also go right. When we smile, we train ourselves to interpret the world in a more positive way—or at least remind ourselves that life is easier if we accept things the way they are. I keep a smiling Buddha sculpture in my meditation corner as an example. When I find myself resisting the flow of life’s ups and downs, I follow his lead and let my face relax into an accepting smile.

In Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, Thich Nhat Hanh says, “If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. Our smile affirms our awareness and determination to live in peace and joy. The source of a true smile is an awakened mind.”

Peaceful, positive actions lead to peaceful, positive feelings. For me, smiling and standing tall inspires me to see the world as a better, friendlier place even as I contribute to making it so. It enables me to laugh more readily at life and at myself. Try it and see what a posture makeover, expression overhaul, or smile therapy does for you.

Thich Nhat Hanh is one of my favorite role models for happiness. Read excerpts from or buy Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life on Amazon.com.

Source: Schnall, S., & Laird, J. D. (2003). Keep smiling: Enduring effects of facial expressions and postures on emotional experience. Cognition and Emotion, 17, 787-797.


Sharon and Mike Williams said...

As I sit here looking out at Mt. Redoubt and eagles flying across my lines of vision, there is not much I can do but smile. Your advice is sound as usual; thanks for the reminder that a smile goes miles to making life better and more fruitful.

birdsong said...

I've been trying this Erin, and it really does work! Thanks for the great post!

Hope said...

Thanks for your input today, for it was really helpful. Also, thanks for this article. You are a good friend and neighbor.