Does smiling make you feel happier?

Do we smile because we’re happy? Or are we happy because we smile?

The idea that smiling makes you feel happier is not a recent hypothesis.

In 1872, in his paper The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin wrote:

“The free expression by outward signs of an emotion intensifies it. On the other hand, the repression, as far as this is possible, of all outward signs softens our emotions.”

He was one of the first to explore the idea that our body’s emotional responses (such as a smile) also influence our feelings. 

The leading nineteenth century psychologist William James also went so far as to assert that if a person does not express an emotion, they have not felt it at all.

Skip forward to the modern day and a number of studies have been carried out to discover to what extent this feedback loop exists.

In the 1980s a study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology where participants were asked to hold a pencil in three different ways. The first group held the pencil widthways between their teeth, forcing a smile. The second group held the pencil in their lips lengthwise, preventing them from smiling. The control group held the pencil in their hand. Without knowing that the study was about emotion, the participants were shown a number of cartoons and asked to rate how funny they were. The study found that participants who were ‘smiling’ gave much higher ‘funny’ ratings than the group that were frowning, with the control group coming in the middle.

More recently, in 2009, a study by Dr Michael Lewis of the the University of Cardiff found that participants who’d lost their ability to frown as much a result of having botox were on average happier than those who could frown. Interestingly the participants who’d had botox did not report feeling any more attractive suggesting that these emotional effects were not driven by a boost from the cosmetic nature of the procedure.

Commenting later at the 2013 British Psychological Society's Annual Conference Dr Lewis said:

"The expressions that we make on our face affects the emotions we feel; we smile because we are happy but smiling also makes us happy. Treatment with drugs like Botox prevents the patient from being able to make a particular expression. For example, those treated for frown lines with Botox are not able to frown as strongly. This interrupts the feedback they would normally get from their face and they feel less sad."

No one yet understands exactly how our facial expressions influence our emotions but these studies have certainly given us something to smile about.