We all know that our emotions are often mirrored on our faces in the form of numerous expressions that connect with what we are feeling. But can it also go the other way? Can facial expressions elicit feelings?

This subject has long fascinated psychology researchers, who have been attempting to determine if facial expressions might impact our emotional experiences, a concept known as the “facial feedback hypothesis.” A recent international study led by Nicholas Coles of Stanford University and published in the journal Nature Human Behavior found strong evidence that smiling can make us happier.

The researchers point out that this effect is not strong enough to treat serious mental illnesses like depression, but it does tell us a lot about how emotions work and where they come from.

In an attempt to explain how this system works, psychologists have proposed that our conscious perception of emotions is based on bodily sensations. For instance, a fast heartbeat can make us feel what we think of as fear.

Several experiments were done to learn more about facial feedback, but not all of them worked, which calls into question the theory.

So, Dr. Coles did a meta-analysis, which looked at a lot of different methods and came up with a method that most researchers agreed on. Specifically, he developed a strategy that used three widely used methods for getting people to use their smile muscles:

  • The pen-in-mouth challenge required participants to hold a pen with their teeth to resemble smiling or with their lips to generate a neutral position.
  • Facial mimicking challenge – researchers instructed participants to replicate the facial emotions of performers posing with pleased or neutral attitudes.
  • Voluntary facial action task – participants were instructed to raise their cheeks and move their lips toward their ears or maintain a neutral face posture.

The scientists conducted attention checks before the tests were finished. Participants who did not score high enough on these checks were not included in the study. Additionally, participants who used mobile devices to complete the study did not accurately recreate the required facial expression, or reported being distracted during the study were also excluded.

Researchers analyzed DEQ results to see whether participants’ self-reported levels of happiness differed when they posed with a cheerful or neutral look.

Using the DEQ, scientists also looked at how happy people felt when they saw pictures of dogs, flowers, kittens, rainbows, or other images that were culturally appropriate.

Half of the participants in each group completed the task while seeing joyful images, while the other half saw a blank screen. The participants then saw the same images or a blank screen while maintaining a neutral facial expression. The participants assessed their level of happiness after each activity.

Based on data from 3,878 people in 19 nations, the researchers found that participants in the Facial mimicking challenge or Voluntary facial action task reported feeling much happier.

But they didn’t find that the pen-to-mouth technique made a big difference in how people felt. 

In the pen-in-mouth test, however, individuals reported greater feelings of anger and anxiety than in the other two tasks.

Dr. Coles noted that they were unable to evaluate the influence of “multiple facial expressions” due to practical restrictions. This would have meant making the research even more complicated and involving a lot more people.

He continued, saying that in another research, members of the Many Smiles Collaboration looked at additional facial expressions, including the impacts of smiling and scowling.

The findings of the study show “that posed smiles increased happiness and posed scowls increased anger—even when participants were told or believed that such effects are not real. [E]xpanding the number of facial expressions, this work suggested that such effects are not merely placebo,” he added.

Dr. Coles, while discussing the effects of expressions, said that they yielded fascinating findings for a number of other emotions.

“Intriguingly, we did not find the effect for posed expressions of fear and surprise. However, that may be due to the fact that there are not yet many studies on those expressions,” he added.

According to this study, facial feedback plays a role in emotional experience as a component of the peripheral nervous system.

The research suggests that smiling in the mirror every morning might help people manage their stress, but can these seemingly little impacts add up to have a lasting impact on well-being? There is not yet enough evidence to determine whether or not face feedback may be used to promote psychological well-being.

“The effect of posed smiles on happiness” according to Dr. Coles, “is very small—about the same size as the effect of looking at mildly pleasant photos of rainbows and puppies. 

“Given that pictures of puppies haven’t emerged as a serious well-being intervention, I find it unlikely that posed smiles will. Ultimately, however, we will need more research if we want to know for sure.”


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