Try this and smile

Our Life Lab expert Martha Roberts invites you to road-test research around feeling good


Try this and smile

Most of us associate smiling with being happy. But a smile is not just an expression of happiness; experts have shown that the very act of smiling can itself make us happier.

The theory: 

When we smile, it doesn't end with the movement of our facial muscles into the familiar expression we all know. In fact, experts say that's just the start of it. A smile is a physiologically-based action that has a direct effect on certain brain activities associated with happiness – in other words, when we smile, it switches on certain chemical processes in our brain that improve our mood and sense of wellbeing. Even Charles Darwin wrote in 1872 that 'the free expression by outward signs of an emotion intensifies it’. The causal link between smiling and happiness was suggested by psychologist Robert Zajonc following a study in which he got subjects to repeat vowel sounds that forced their faces into various expressions, namely a long 'e' sound and a long 'u' sound. Subjects reported feeling good after making the long 'e' (a smile-like expression) and feeling bad after the long 'u' (a pouty expression). So it would seem that smiling can make you feel better than effectively doing the opposite.

So what kind of smile is best? A University of Kansas study published in the journal Psychological Science found that a smile of any kind – fake or genuine – will do. The researchers got volunteers to arrange their faces in a variety of ways – genuine smiles, fake smiles, neutral expressions and then with chopsticks propping their mouths open into forced grins. The participants then performed stressful tasks (like plunging their hand into icy cold water) while maintaining their assigned facial expression. Those who smiled in any manner – even if it was fake or forced by chopsticks – had lower heart rates than those with neutral expressions. In other words, smiling when you are stressed helps to lower your body's stress response regardless of how happy you are feeling and even if it is fake.

However, a study from Michigan State University found that cracking a genuine smile can not only improve your mood but can make you more productive, too. The study published in the Academy of Management Journal looked at a group of bus drivers for two weeks and examined what happened when they engaged in fake smiling (known as 'surface acting') as opposed to 'deep acting' where they generated genuine smiles through positive thoughts. The researchers found that on days when the drivers forced their smiles, their moods worsened and on days when they smiled through deeper efforts (by cultivating pleasant thoughts and memories) their moods improved and their productivity increased.

Research carried out at the University of Wisconsin found that there is a unique link between positive emotion and a so-called genuine 'Duchenne smile' where you smile with your eyes and your mouth, first noted by anatomist Guillaume Duchenne in the 1800s. Over the years, mental health researchers have noted that patients with depression express Duchenne smiles more often on discharge interviews than during their admission. It therefore seems that if you want to increase happiness levels by smiling, any smile will do but it seems a Duchenne one is likely to be most effective.  

Try this: 

Learn how to smile a Duchenne smile. This involves two facial muscles: the zygomatic major (raising the corners of the mouth) and the orbicularis oculi (raising the cheeks to produce crow's feet around the eyes). A fake, so-called 'Botox smile' only uses the zygomatic major – you can't voluntarily contract the orbicularis oculi, although you can squint slightly. So if you want to smile a Duchenne smile, try this:

1) Imagine a joyful situation. Leading neuroscientist Andrew Newberg suggests visualising someone you love deeply or recalling an event that brought you deep satisfaction and joy will help to make your smile more genuine. Equally, you may want to think of a joke or situation that made you laugh.

2) Practise smiling in front of the mirror. Practise activating both corners of your mouth and your eye sockets. You will know when your smile is genuine because you will feel happy and relaxed.

3) Concentrate on your eyes. Cover the lower part of your face with a piece of paper. When your eyes are smiling, really concentrate on what muscles are working and why, and remember this each time you smile. Try to engage these muscles each time you smile, even if you feel the smile scenario is 'fake'.

4) Mark how happy you feel. As you practise your smile, on a scale of one to ten, gauge how happy smiling with just your mouth makes you feel. Then do the same, but smile with your eyes. At the beginning of the month, mark on the same scale how happy you are feeling in general. Over the month, try to smile with your eyes in each smile scenario you come across, then after a month, mark how happy you are feeling now.  

Martha Roberts is an award-winning UK health writer and blogger at