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International study shows “posed” smiles improve mood

Can posing a smile be enough to brighten our mood? According to a study conducted by scientists from all over the world, including two Italian researchers from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and Università Magna Graecia di Catanzaro, the answer is yes. If we pose a smile by moving the corners of our lips up towards our ears and elevating our cheeks, we can influence our emotional experience.  

The study, A multi-lab test of the facial feedback hypothesis by the Many Smiles Collaboration, has been published in Nature Human Behavior. It is the most recent discovery in the field of human behaviour studies. According to research scientist Nicholas Coles from Stanford University, coordinator of the study, the effect of this posed smile is not enough to enable people to overcome depressive moods. Nevertheless, its effect does give clues as to what emotions are and where they are from.

Whether facial expressions can influence our emotional experience has long been debated among psychology researchers. Psychologists have yet to find an agreement on how emotions originate. According to one theory, our conscious experience of emotions derives from our bodily feelings. The role played by facial expressions would seem to confirm this hypothesis, although some recent experiments have also questioned it.

One experiment found that people reported that comics were funnier if they read them while holding a pen between their teeth — activating the muscles involved in smiling. In 2016, however, 17 laboratories tested this experiment and failed to replicate its results.

In 2019, Dr Coles examined all the studies that had been conducted in this field and found supporting evidence to the “facial feedback” theory, according to which facial movements that are associated with certain emotions can elicit them. Dr Coles decided to design an experiment to test this hypothesis and launched the Many Smiles Collaboration, which involved scientists who were already researching this topic as well as researchers who had not yet undertaken studies in this field.

The experiment used three techniques to activate the muscles associated with smiling. One third of the participants were asked to hold a pen between their teeth. One third was asked to imitate the expression of actors who were smiling in photos. Finally, one third was given instructions on how to raise the corners of their lips  towards their ears and elevate their cheeks just using their facial muscles.

In each group, half of the participants carried out the task while looking at funny images, such as photos of puppies or fireworks, while the others faced a blank screen. Every participant was then asked to adopt a neutral expression.

In order not to reveal the purpose of the research, these tasks were included in a series of different tasks, including solving mathematical problems. After the completion of each task, participants were asked to report how happy they felt.

The study involved 3,878 participants from 19 countries. Data analysis was conducted by Marco Marozzi, professor of Statistics at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, and Marco Tullio Liuzza, professor of Psychometry at Università di Catanzaro. These Italian researchers worked on statistical and psychometric analysis.

The results showed that people who imitated smiling photos and the people who posed smiles according to the instructions reported feeling happier, while the people who held a pen between their teeth did not show significant mood changes. According to the researchers, this particular technique seemed ineffective in creating the effects of smiling.

This experiment supports the theory that the emotions we experience are in some way related to the movements of our muscles and other bodily sensations. Posing a smile might indeed make us feel happier.