Can We Make Ourselves Happier by Smiling?

Would that we could simply smile and instantly feel happier. When people feel down, the advice often heard is that all they need to do is smile and then all will be well. Alas, it just ain’t so. The psychological reality is that the link between smiling and feeling fine is a good deal more complicated and substantially more fascinating than such simple advice would suggest.

One fact is true: Scientific evidence shows that the path between smiling and positive emotion is a two-way street. Happy feelings are sometimes expressed in a smile and sometimes smiling elicits happy feelings, but there is no simple or sure connection between adopting a facial expression and feeling different.

Just as people can smile when they feel anything but positive, happy feelings do not inevitably produce smiling expressions. We human beings are not emotional open books. Individuals occasionally dampen the expression of happy feelings if to express them would be inappropriate or foolhardy. Likewise, we often show happy feelings we do not feel because either we do not want to hurt others’ feelings or we need to protect ourselves. In short, social situations and personal relationships complicate the link between what one shows and what one feels.

Research psychologists now know more about when a smile might affect happiness. The Facial Feedback Hypothesis acknowledges that a facial expression can influence what one feels—under certain conditions. If an individual is feeling rather blah—that is, not currently feeling much of anything—adopting a smile will probably elicit some shift of feeling in a positive direction. If, however, a person feels very sad or very angry, then a smile, even a very intense smile, cannot turn strong negative feelings like these into positive feelings.

A second component ignored in the advice to smile and you’ll feel better is the effect of smiling on others not just yourself. A smile often has the effect of drawing people in or at least not sending them away, and it is the presence of people in our lives rather than the smile per se that makes people feel better.

Marianne LaFrance is a professor of psychology at Yale University and the author of the new book Lip Service: Smiles in Life, Death, Trust, Lies, Work, Memory, Sex and Politics.

Category: Q&A


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