Smiling when you don’t feel like it is a powerful way to change your psychological outlook on the world, says new scientific research.
There aren’t many people over 40 who haven’t heard the wonderful lyrics to that 1954 Nat King Cole hit, Smile.
“Smile, though your heart is breaking; smile, though your heart is aching…” go the words that have themselves brought melancholy smiles to millions of listeners around the world.
Well, it turns out that old Nat King Cole really knew what he was crooning about. New scientific research from the University of South Australia confirms that smiling is one of the most powerful psychological tools in our emotional box of tricks.
And the trick is exactly the right word because when you move your facial muscles in a particular way, it tricks the mind into being more positive.
Now, let’s face it. With the world in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic, and with economic doom and gloom all around us, the world needs every bit of positive reinforcement it can get right now.
The University of South Australia study, published in the scientific journal Experimental Psychology, evaluates the effect of a stealthy smile on the perception of both facial expressions and body language.
In both cases, a smile was induced by the study’s participants when they held a pen between their teeth, forcing their facial muscles to replicate the muscular activity of a smile.
The research found that facial muscular activity not only alters the recognition of facial expressions but also body expressions, with both generating more positive emotions.
Lead researcher and human and artificial cognition expert, UniSA’s Dr Fernando Marmolejo-Ramos, says the finding has important insights for mental health.
“When your muscles say you’re happy, you’re more likely to see the world around you in a positive way,” Dr Marmolejo-Ramos says.
“In our research, we found that when you forcefully practise smiling, it stimulates the amygdala — the emotional centre 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.”
The study replicated findings from the ‘stealthy’ smile experiment by evaluating how people interpret a range of facial expressions (spanning frowns to smiles) using the pen-in-teeth mechanism; it then extended this using point-light motion images (spanning sad walking videos to happy walking videos) as the visual stimuli.
Dr Marmolejo-Ramos says there is a strong link between action and perception.
“In a nutshell, perceptual and motor systems are intertwined when we emotionally process stimuli,” Dr Marmolejo-Ramos says.
“A ‘fake it ’til you make it’ approach could have more credit than we expect.”
Historical note: The music to the song Smile was composed by Charlie Chaplin as the musical theme to his black and white 1936 film, Modern Times. The lyrics were written 18 years later in 1954 by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons before the song was released by Nat King Cole to become a worldwide hit and the much-loved ballad it remains today. That’s enough to make you smile.
Materials provided by the University of South Australia.