Smiling more often — even faking it — ‘tricks’ your brain into feeling happy, study finds

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ADELAIDE, Australia — Can a smile truly make everything better? A new study finds even if you don’t feel like smiling, faking one can have positive impacts. Researchers say smiling triggers certain facial muscles which can trick your brain into feeling more positive.

The study by the University of South Australia examines participants holding a pen between their teeth, forcing their face to use the same muscles as a smile. The experiment reveals that this movement alters both facial and body expressions, which generates more uplifting emotions.

“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 a university release.

How smiles trick the brain

Holding a pen between the teeth can induce a covert smile, triggering positive emotional signals.
(©Daniela A´ lvarez, 2020)

Marmolejo-Ramos says this discovery provides important information about mental health and what stimulates the brain. This is critical during the coronavirus pandemic, which study authors add is causing disturbing spikes in anxiety and depression cases globally.

“In our research we found that when you forcefully practice smiling, it stimulates the amygdala – the emotional center of the brain – which releases neurotransmitters to encourage an emotionally positive state,” the artificial cognition expert explains.

“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.”

Perception may be as important as reality

The Australian team is replicating a “covert smiling experiment” from 2009 which also evaluates how people perceive someone’s facial reactions. Using the same pen-in-the-teeth trick, researchers study how people view various reactions spanning from frowns to big happy grins. Researchers even examine the differences in images of people walking sadly or happily.

Dr. Marmolejo-Ramos reveals there seems to be a definite link between how we act and our perception of happiness.

“In a nutshell, perceptual and motor systems are intertwined when we emotionally process stimuli,” the researcher reports. “A ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ approach could have more credit than we expect.”

The study appears in the journal Experimental Psychology.

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