The Smile Debate

Strange times we live in—making it all the more important that we preserve and protect our smiles.

But would you believe people even fight about smiles? That’s right, people have been debating for about 100 years whether something like putting on a happy face can actually affect our emotions.

Finally, an international group of deniers and accepters (an “Adversarial Collaboration” as the researchers called themselves) approved a study design they could all get behind together to settle this question. (More adversaries should do that. Don’t you think?)

For readers fascinated by famous feuds, check out Hal Hellman’s series of books on “Great Feuds in…” medicine, science, mathematics, and technology. My favorite is Hellman’s description of the Freud/Jung dynamic:

Freud fell over in a dead faint during a discussion . . . and Jung carried him to a couch. . . . As with many family relationships, this one had elements of both love and hate. . . . Freud suggested that he hated Jung because of what he perceived as Jung’s death wish toward him. Jung, for his part, commented: “Just like a woman. Confront her with a disagreeable truth: she faints.”

What fun. But I digress. As for whether smiles work, I have written on this before myself. Here below from an earlier 2022 post:

Just Smile

SMILE. That’s right, SMILE. A new study confirms what we may have heard before, that making the facial muscles into a smile really does work. When your facial muscles are smiling, they stimulate the brain’s emotion center (amygdala) to release neurotransmitters that essentially fake out you and your brain into a happy state.

What if You Don’t Feel Like Smiling

If you just don’t feel like smiling, either because you think it’s not right or because you have something on your plate or your heart that just makes it too hard, that’s okay. It’s okay to not be okay. But, if you want to, when you are ready, you can try this:

Hold a pen between your teeth. It makes the face into a smile, and your brain hardly knows the difference between this and the real thing. Don’t believe it? Give it a try. Practice, practice, practice… see what happens and let us know in comments below.

Well, now it turns out that the pen-in-mouth technique doesn’t do much after all. It was unclear to me from the Nature article why the pen-in-mouth technique had a lesser effect. Maybe it has something to do with what we know from the movies, i.e., that biting down on an object like that is what people are told to do to offset a concurrent excruciating pain. If there is anything to that, it is easy to see how pen-in-mouth would not produce a happy state.

Smiles That Work

The 3 techniques studied were:

1) mimicking facial expressions of actors seen in photos;

2) moving the corners of their mouths to their cheeks using only their facial muscles; and

3) using the ‘pen-in-mouth’ technique, which moves the facial muscles in a simulated smile shape.

The first two showed significant happiness upticks, as evidence for the age-old argument that, yes, there can be a connection between our faces and our moods.

And other people’s well-being too!

What Else Smiles Do

It is not just that a smile can improve our mood. Back in 2016, I wrote about a study on how our facial expressions can dramatically affect our lives:

“Attractive people are often perceived as more intelligent, but we wanted to investigate how individuals can change their perceived intelligence, regardless of their attractiveness. The solution seems to lie in subtle differences in a resting facial expression that are related to sleep – namely eyelid droopiness and subtle frowning.”

We need to keep an eye on our sleep and our face for our mind and body. Solara Mental Health posted that: “From living a better and longer life to appearing more approachable and confident, from reducing the risk of certain serious diseases to releasing hormones that help decrease stress levels, the benefits of smiling are plentiful.”

But these authors also point out that my face doesn’t only affect me. There are many studies to show that smiling is contagious. If I smile at you, you are more likely to smile, too—meaning that my face affects your well-being too.

So, what would life be like if every time we felt beaten down by whatever-it-is, we pulled out a 5-second smile first thing before we try to figure out what if anything, else needs to be done.

Practice, practice, practice…and let us know what you find.



Photo by Pexels Pixabay

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About the Author: Madelaine Weiss
Madelaine Claire Weiss (LICSW, MBA, BCC) is a Licensed Psychotherapist, a Board Certified Executive-Career-Life Coach, and bestselling author of “Getting to G.R.E.A.T. 5-Step Strategy for Work and Life.” sfas

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