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Forcing a Smile May Improve Your Mood, Study Suggests

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 Josh Seong / verywell

Key Takeaways

  • The act of smiling triggers brain chemicals related to positivity, even when the smile isn't genuine, a recent study says.
  • Just mimicking facial muscular activity, like holding a pencil in your mouth, is enough to generate more positive emotions.
  • The downsides of "faking" positivity are few, experts added, unless you're trying to mask symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Simply moving your facial muscles in a way that mimics a smile can trick your brain into a more positive state, according to a recent study published in the journal Experimental Psychology.

The research found that the physical act of smiling not only created internal positive feelings, but also caused participants to see the world around them in a more positive way, according to lead researcher Fernando Marmolejo-Ramos, PhD, a research fellow at the Centre for Change and Complexity in Learning at the University of South Australia.

Happy Brain, Brighter Perspective

Researchers from the University of South Australia had participants replicate the facial movement of a smile by holding a pen between their teeth, causing the corners of the mouth to lift. Even though participants' smiles were faked, their brains didn't know the difference, says Marmolejo-Ramos.

"In our research, we found that when you forcefully practice smiling, it stimulates the amygdala, which releases neurotransmitters to encourage an emotionally positive state," he states.

The amygdala is considered the emotional center of the brain, and plays a primary role in the processing of responses related to fear, aggression, and anxiety. It also factors into decision-making and memory.

Fernando Marmolejo-Ramos, PhD

In our research, we found that when you forcefully practice smiling, it stimulates the amygdala, which releases neurotransmitters to encourage an emotionally positive state.

— Fernando Marmolejo-Ramos, PhD

Creating positive feelings that aren't just about personal happiness but are also related to perception could have interesting implications for mental health, believes Marmolejo-Ramos.

Feedback Loop

This study highlights a potentially curious feedback loop between external appearance and internal feelings, according to Alex Dimitriu, MD, founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine.

"There could well be a link between how we appear and how we feel, whether we are forcibly smiling or simply frowning less," he says, adding that this is highlighted by a previous study that linked Botox injections in improved depression scores.

Does that mean faking a few moments of happiness could lead to the real thing? The recent research, as well as previous studies, suggest that could be true, Dimitriu says.

What This Means for You

When it comes to cultivating a more positive outlook on life, there are numerous factors at play. Diet, exercise, and professional mental health support are all key to improving your mindset. That being said, there could be real advantages to smiling more than you normally do. Even if it feels silly at times give it a try, your brain will thank you.

Are There Downsides to Faking a Smile?

In terms of the negative aspects of acting happy when you're not, Dimitriu believes there aren't many drawbacks to giving it a try, especially since it might increase the chances of developing a more positive outlook overall. And with consistent practice, you may not need to fake the smiling in the long-term, which could lead to other beneficial shifts in physical and emotional health, he adds.

"The power of positive behavior, expectation, and mindset is not to be underestimated," says Dimitriu. "In many cases of depression, we see the opposite, which makes low moods last longer and makes it harder to take action for change."

That said, it's important to pay attention to how those non-genuine practice smiles are affecting you, just as it's crucial to be aware of how any strategy designed to help your mental health is working, suggests Ian Sadler, PhD, psychologist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

Alex Dimitriu, MD

The power of positive behavior, expectation, and mindset are not to be underestimated. In many cases of depression, we see the opposite, which makes low moods last longer and makes it harder to take action for change.

— Alex Dimitriu, MD

If you're just playing with forcible smiling as a fun way to get an emotional boost, that's one thing. But if you're using those smiles as a way to mask anxiety or pretend depression symptoms aren't present, that's entirely different.

"When it comes to creating a positive mental outlook, so much goes into it, from work satisfaction to a sense of purpose, to mind-body practices that translate physical movement into emotional reactions," Sadler says. "They all have their place, and it can be remarkable that small changes may have big effects."

Faking a smile until you make it real could be one of these minor, quirky shifts that ends up having an actual positive effect, adds Dimitriu. "At worst, faking it might not be effective," he says. "That's not much of a downside, and it's very little effort to give it a try."

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