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Smiling really can make people feel happier, according to a new paper published in Psychological Bulletin.

Coauthored by researchers at UT and Texas A&M, the paper looked at nearly 50 years of data testing whether facial expressions can lead people to feel the emotions related to those expressions.

 

Science Minute: Smiles Could Be Hiding the Secret to Happiness

 

“Conventional wisdom tells us that we can feel a little happier if we simply smile. Or that we can get ourselves in a more serious mood if we scowl,” said Nicholas Coles, PhD student in social psychology and lead researcher on the paper.“But psychologists have actually disagreed about this idea for over 100 years.”

These disagreements became more pronounced in 2016, when 17 teams of researchers failed to replicate a well-known experiment demonstrating that the physical act of smiling can make people feel happier.

“Some studies have not found evidence that facial expressions can influence emotional feelings,” Coles said. “But we can’t focus on the results of any one study. Psychologists have been testing this idea since the early 1970s, so we wanted to look at all the evidence.”

Using a statistical technique called meta-analysis, Coles and his team combined data from 138 studies testing more than 11,000 participants from all around the world. According to the results of the meta-analysis, facial expressions have a small impact on feelings. For example, smiling makes people feel happier, scowling makes them feel angrier, and frowning makes them feel sadder.

“We don’t think that people can smile their way to happiness,” Coles said. “But these findings are exciting because they provide a clue about how the mind and the body interact to shape our conscious experience of emotion. We still have a lot to learn about these facial feedback effects, but this meta-analysis put us a little closer to understanding how emotions work.”

The study, “A Meta-Analysis of the Facial Feedback Literature: Effects of Facial Feedback on Emotional Experience Are Small and Variable,” is co-authored by Jeff Larsen, professor of psychology at UT, and Heather Lench of Texas A&M University. The research is supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship awarded to Coles.

Media coverage: Science Blog, April 9; Huffington Post UK: Smiling Really Can Make You Feel Happier, Says (Some of) the Science (also ran on Yahoo! News UK); Daily Mail: Smiling Really Does Make You Happier; The Independent: Smiling Has a Direct Positive Impact on Your Mood, Scientists Say; WebMD: Science Says: Smiling Helps You Get Happy; News Medical: Smiling Is The Secret to Happiness, According to Experts; Drugs.com: Science Says: Smiling Does Bring a Mood Boost; Futurity: To Change How You Feel, Put on a Smile; The Sun: Smiling Really Can Make You Feel Happier; Yahoo! US: Smiling Has A Direct Positive Impact on Your Mood, Scientists Say; StudyFinds: The Key to Happiness? Just Smile, Study Suggests; ABC13: Smiling Can Make People Happier: Psychologists; Science Alert: Turns Out This Age-Old Tip for Making Yourself Happier Actually Works; Metro: There’s A Really Simple Way to Make Yourself Feel A Little Bit Happier, Scientists Reveal; Fox 17: UT Researcher Finds Smiling Can Affect Emotions; Earth.com:Smiling Really Can Make You Feel Happier; Mind Body Green: Here’s a 10-Second Way to Boost Your Mood; MSN: Expressing Happiness Can Help You Feel More Positive; London Economic: Smiling Really Can Help People Feel Happier; Business Standard: Smiling Makes People Happier: Study (also ran in The Times of India); Mirror (Rachael Bletchly): A Smile Helps You Wash Away the Brexit Anxiety; CBS AustinFake It ‘Til You Make It: Researchers Find Smiling Can Affect Emotions; Philly VoiceA Quick Trick to Naturally Boost Your Mood? Smile, Researchers Say; Financial Express: Smile Please! Smiling Makes People Happier, Finds Study; The IndependentLifestyle Barometer: Your Guide to What’s Hot and What’s Not (also ran on Yahoo! Style UK); The Eagle, Kenny Wiley, April 20; Health Beat, April 23; Red Tricycle, April 22; NPR, Maanvi Singh, July 1

CONTACT:

Brian Canever (865-974-0937, bcanever@utk.edu)

Amanda Womac (865-974-2992, awomac1@utk.edu)