Turn That Frown Upside Down. Really, though. It’s Good for You.
It may be an age-old saying that makes most people groan whenever a friend or family member feels the need to say it, but there are actual psychological benefits that come from simply putting on a smile. Researchers have been examining this phenomenon for a few decades now and even though it is not a new age, 21st century discovery, it is nonetheless amazing and unexpected. One would intuitively assume that facial expressions are an external representation of what is going on inside the brain. Classically, facial expressions are considered to be influenced by mood and thought. It seems to be a one-way street in which the brain controls the face, but this is not the case.
Charles Darwin hypothesized that emotional facial expressions are an innate and universal human characteristic. A happy face is a happy face no matter where you are in the world. This theory has been thoroughly explored and psychologists have produced evidence that supports this century-old speculation. This is convenient in a way, because if facial expressions were specific to a geographic region, people would have to learn faces as if they were learning a new language. What a challenge that would be! But the more interesting aspect to these universal facial expressions is that the physical expression can directly influence one’s emotions.
Studies on this finding were approached in multiple ways. One study conducted at Clark University in Worcester, MA instructed patients to move certain parts of their face in various ways, such as raising the eyebrows or relaxing the mouth, and then reporting their emotions. (The patients were not told that the study had anything to do with emotion.) In another study performed by a group of German researchers, patients were told to clench a pen in their front teeth, creating a smile, or hold the pen in their protruding lips, creating a pout, and then report their emotional state. In these studies, patient’s emotions were consistent with the resulting facial expression. So, it can be inferred from these findings that making a happy face can help make you happy. It must be noted that changing facial expression is not a means of changing one’s whole state of mind. Certainly someone who is mourning cannot just put on a smile and instantly be cured of all sadness. It is not that simple. It is more realistic to think that facial expression can influence emotion, not directly change it. We would all be in for quite a roller coaster ride of emotion if the opposite were true, and a rapid change of facial expression was able to instantaneously change our moods.
If this finding is valid then there must be some physical explanation or neural substrate to explain it. Even though researchers observed this phenomenon decades ago, a full explanation is yet to be obtained. There are a number of hypotheses, though. Many incorporate the brain’s limbic system, and specifically the hypothalamus – areas of the brain known to control emotional processes. The hypothalamus plays a role in the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which is responsible for many subconscious functions of the peripheral nervous system such as breathing, heart rate, and body temperature. From a physiological standpoint, it is hypothesized that a change in facial expression is able to change patterns of blood flow to limbic structures, therefore influencing one’s emotional state. There are researchers both supporting and refuting this theory, and a more concrete explanation is yet to be found. But the fact remains, put on a smile and your day may get a little brighter.
A Feel-Good Theory: A Smile Affects Mood – NY Times
Facial expressions and the regulation of emotions – Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
Facial Expression and Emotion – American Psychologist