Psychologists Find Reason to Doubt Smiling Makes You Happy

Sep 12, 2016, by Dr. Becky Coats

For decades it has been considered a strong finding based on a solid experiment: smiling makes you happy (and maybe more eager to buy a product). But now researchers have gone back to the solid experiment and found that they couldn’t reproduce the results. Does this mean that smiling doesn’t make you happy? Possibly, but it’s just as likely that the new experiments have flawed methodology.

An Old Idea Led to a Classic Experiment

Although the classic experiments on the subject only date from the 1980s, the theory that smiling makes you happy is over 100 years older than that. It’s usually attributed to Charles Darwin, who put the theory forward in 1872’s The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, though he cites a French anatomist.

It’s called the biofeedback theory, and it has two versions. The extreme version, the one promoted by the French anatomist and others since then, states that if you can’t express an emotion, you can’t have it. The more common version, the one put forward by Darwin and generally held by most psychologists is that our brain is partly putting emotion forward, but also reading input from our body to understand our emotional state. In other words, you start smiling (usually) because you’re happy, and when your brain finds out from your muscles that you’re smiling, it reinforces your brain’s sense that you’re happy.

Does smiling make you happy?

It’s a psychological equivalent to balance. Your brain is constantly reading input from multiple sources. When it feels off balance, it tries to correct by movement, then checks its input to make sure it’s actually balanced.

But testing this theory was difficult because it could be interfered with by the people in the experiment. Essentially, if you ask someone to smile, they know they’re supposed to feel happy. So when dozens of experiments confirm that people say they’re happier when they’re smiling, it’s not exactly strong evidence.

That’s what makes the 1980s experiments by Fritz Strack and colleagues so groundbreaking. They found a way to get people to smile and frown without knowing that’s what they were doing. In their experiments, people were asked to hold a pen, either with their lips (causing them to make a frown-like expression) or with their teeth (making a smile-like expression).

Then they were asked to rate how funny cartoons were. People saw the cartoons as much funnier when they were holding the pen in their teeth (i.e. smiling) than when they were holding it in their lips (i.e. frowning). It seemed that, even when they didn’t know they were smiling, moving their muscles in that way made them happier.

Replication Disaster

But that isn’t what happened when researchers tried to duplicate the experiment in 2015. A total of 17 labs in eight countries recruited nearly 2000 subjects to try to produce the same results as Strack. They didn’t.

In nine labs, there was a similar effect, but much smaller than what Strack and colleagues reported. In the remaining eight labs, the effect was the opposite. When they were all averaged together, there seemed to be no effect at all. As a result, the duplication experiment was judged to be a failure, and the theory was cast in doubt: does smiling really make us happier?

The Problem with Replication

Some people are eager to pounce on this finding and say that it’s obviously not a reliable principle. With the general history of replication experiments falling short, many people are doubting whether psychology experiments are at all reliable.

But, some people say, maybe it’s the replication experiments that aren’t reliable. Maybe the attempt to replicate the exact experimental circumstances doesn’t actually reproduce the experiment because something has changed. To be more reliable, replication experiments should look at the variables being tested and try to reproduce them.

Strack’s smile experiment is a great example of this. Part of what made Strack’s experiment so brilliant and effective is that participants didn’t know what was being tested. That allowed the variables to interact freely. But in the past 30 years, the experiment has become famous. It is hard to imagine that even a quarter of the people involved in the reproduction experiment were actually ignorant of what was being tested. Therefore, they’re more likely to be consciously or subconsciously interfering with the experiment, making it less likely to give accurate results.

To reproduce Strack’s results, experiments need to be designed with different conditions to keep subjects in the dark about the study’s goals. In truth, many researchers have performed variants on Strack’s experiments using different approaches. These studies by and large confirm Strack’s findings. Independent of their sense of smiling or not smiling, putting your face in a smiling expression tends to make you happier.

Are You Conducting Your Own Experiment?

But maybe you don’t need a psychologist to tell you the results of this experiment because you’re running one of your own. Do you regularly stifle a smile when you’re out in public or when someone wants to take your picture (or even when you snap a selfie)? How does that affect your mood? If being self-conscious about your smile makes you unhappy, you probably already know the answer to at least one part of this question: not smiling makes you unhappy.

If you are tired of hiding your smile and want to have a beautiful smile that you’ll be happy to show, please call (817) 481-6888 today for an appointment with Dallas area cosmetic dentist Dr. Becky Coats at Grapevine Dental Care.