The Act of Smiling Tricks the Brain into Being More Positive
Thu, April 22, 2021

The Act of Smiling Tricks the Brain into Being More Positive


“When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.” Yes, these lyrics in a song is right. The act of smiling, a new research finds, can trick the mind into being more positive. By simply moving your facial muscles, does not only alter the recognition of facial expression but of body expressions too with both generating more positive emotions.

The power of smiling

Fernando Marmolejo-Ramos from the Centre for Change and Complexity in Learning in the University of South Australia and the team conducted an experiment by replicating the effect of muscle engagement on perception. They asked their participants to hold a pen between their teeth, which forces their facial muscles to replicate the act of smiling. Results show that under the “pen-in-the-teeth” condition, participants tend to lower their threshold of perception of happy expressions in facial stimulate compared to the no-pen condition.

Dr. Marmolejo-Ramos, who is also the lead researcher of the study, said that when the facial muscles say that you are happy, you are more likely to view the world around you in a positive way.  Even if it’s a forceful practice of smiling, it still stimulates the amygdala, which is thought to play important roles in emotion and behavior. It is also the emotional center of the brain. When the amygdala is stimulated, it releases neurotransmitters that encourage the body to be in an emotionally positive state.

The researchers said via Science Daily that this has important implications for mental health. If people can trick their brains into perceiving a happy stimulus, then we can also potentially use such a mechanism to boost our mental health. This is a timely find that the world is fighting against Covid-19 and there has been an alarming increase in depression and anxiety around the world.



The link between perception and action

The lead researcher went on to say that there is a strong link between perception and action. Motor and perceptual systems are linked when we emotionally process stimuli. It appears that the “fake it till you make it” approach has more credit than we thought, he added.

When fake smiles are bad

However, the Association for Psychological Science has previously detailed the physiological reasons why a smile is un-fakeable. It says that a smile starts in our sensory corridors. The zygomatic major, which is a muscle of the facial expression that draws the angle of the mouth superiorly and posteriorly to allow one to smile, tugs the lips upward. Then, the orbicularis oculi, a muscle in the face that closes the eyelids, squeezes the outside corners of the eyes to shape a crow’s foot. This whole process may be short (typically two-thirds of a second to four seconds) but those who witness the smile usually respond by mirroring the action and they smile back.

The Association for Psychological Science added that other muscles in the face may stimulate a smile but only the tango of zygomatic major and the orbicularis oculi produces an authentic expression of positive emotion. Psychologists refer to this as the “Duchenne smile” – a true sign of enjoyment. It was named after French anatomist Guillaume Duchenne. His theories show that one may force the zygomatic major to work but it takes a “sweet emotions of the soul” to make the orbicularis oculi activate.

Wellness coach Elizabeth Scott, MS said that a fake smile can backfire if you feel unhappy. If a person is smiling as a way to repress an upset feeling, it can only make them feel worse. However, when they are feeling only neutral or slightly “down,” smiling can help.



Children had the greatest superpower smiles

Smiling is a universal means of communicating and children have the greatest of such superpower. While most adults smile more than 20 times a day, children can smile as many as 400 times per day. It’s no surprise why being around kids who smile frequently also makes you smile more often.

In 2001, the University of California at Berkeley psychologists Dacher Keltner and LeeAnne Harker also conducted a study about smiles. They analyzed the yearbook photos of women at the age of 21 and compared that with their data in a 30-year longitudinal study. They found that women who had those toothy, crow’s-footy smiles reported more satisfaction in their marriages and higher general well-being compared to those who smiled weakly at age 52.

Global emotions: positive experience index worldwide

In more than 151,000 interviews with adults in more than 140 countries in 2018, Gallup found that 71% of people worldwide said they experienced a lot of enjoyment the day before the survey. The country with the highest Positive Experience Index score worldwide was Paraguay (84), followed by Costa Rica (83), Panama (82), Philippines (82), Uzbekistan (82), Ecuador (81), Guatemala (81), Mexico (81), Norway (81), Chile (80), and Colombia (80). On the other hand, countries with the lowest level of positive emotion include Yemen (51), Iraq (51), Turkey (51), and Ukraine (51).

Meanwhile, Our World in Data published that South Korea has 84.74% share of people who say they are happy in 2014 while the US 91.08%.

Types of smiles

People smile for several reasons and there are different types of smiles, according to Healthline. One is called a rewarding smile. It is a smile that motivates us or other people. An example of this is when a baby unexpectedly smiles at their mother and the mother smiles back as she was rewarded for her baby’s happiness.



Another type of smile is the affiliative smile. It is used to reassure others, to communicate belonging, trustworthiness, and good intentions. It is called an affiliative smile because they function as a social connector. The third type is the dominance smile, which shows superiority or to communicate derision and contempt. It is the smile that makes another feel less powerful. Then, there’s the lying smile use when one is trying to deceive another. There are also the polite smile, the wistful smile, the flirtatious smile, the embarrassed smile, and the one mentioned earlier, the Duchenne smile.

So, faking a smile is okay for your health but only under certain conditions. This generally works well if you want to give yourself a boost in positivity but not when you are really sad and is only repressing that emotion. Doing so may make you feel worse in the long run.