Why Smiling Might Not Make You Feel Better

As annoying comments go, the immortal "smile, it might never happen" has to be one of the most infuriating.  The suggestion is more likely to prompt you to punch the other person than smile.

A new study suggests that the advice may be as useless as it is annoying.  It found that the key to gaining the benefits of a smile, in terms of your mood and wellbeing at least, is when it's genuine.  A fake smile can actually do more harm than good.

"Most commonly, people smile when they are happy, because smiling reflects happiness," said Anirban Mukhopadhyay, an associate professor of marketing at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. "However, people also smile when they are unhappy, to mask negative emotion or to try and become happy."

The research saw three experiments conducted to explore both how frequently people would smile, and also what their motivation for doing so was.  One experiment saw participants complete a survey where they would log the number of smiles they made on the day of the experiment alongside their thoughts on whether smiling was associated with feeling good, or whether it was done to make one feel good.  The survey also asked them how happy they were with their life in general.

A second experiment then saw participants shown amusing photos, which the participants were told was for use in future studies.  In reality however they were designed to provoke (hopefully) a natural smile.

The final experiment asked participants to list situations and circumstances where they smiled naturally because they were happy.  Alongside this, participants were asked to undertake facial muscle exercises that were designed to stimulate smiling like movements as well as more frown like gestures.

When the results from the experiments were analysed, some interesting trends emerged.  When people would typically refrain from smiling, even when happy, the act of smiling seemed to make them sadder.  If a person smiled regularly however, the reverse would be true.

"People who are feeling bad and who smile may actually feel worse"

"More generally, we think that making people who are feeling bad smile could backfire and make them feel worse, because they may interpret smiling as trying to become happy," Mukhopadhyay said.

"Smiling frequently would remind them of being not happy," he said, before suggesting that the best strategy in such circumstances may actually be to refrain from smiling until the negative emotion has been sorted out, at which point the smile will be more natural and beneficial.

So, the moral of the story seems to be that if you're a naturally cheerful kind of person, then by all means keep on smiling, as this is likely to only make you feel better.  If grinning away is not something that comes naturally however, attempting to crack a smile will appear forced and backfire on you.

"In practice, I think people can think about their own beliefs about smiling, see how they feel about how frequently they smile and adapt either their beliefs or their behaviors to make themselves feel better," he concluded.

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