By Peter M. Vishton, PhD, William & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily
Do you remember the last time you were in a stressful situation? What about the last time you felt sad or angry? Our body language plays a powerful role in determining our mood, as Professor Vishton explains.
Facial Feedback Hypothesis
Studies have found that if you smile, you will generally feel happier. If you frown, then soon you will begin feeling bad. Researchers refer to this as the facial feedback hypothesis.
Most people readily accept the notion that our emotional feelings influence the way we act. If you’re feeling happy, you’re more likely to smile. If you’re scared, you’re more likely to open your eyes wide and open your mouth.
The facial feedback hypothesis suggests that information flows in the other direction as well. If the emotional centers of your brain detect that you’re smiling—presumably based on signals coming from the muscles and the brain areas that control them—then they encode that as evidence that you must be happy. If your brain detects that you’re acting scared—then, perhaps you are scared.
Smiling and Stress
Smiling doesn’t just make you feel happier. It seems to reduce your responses to pain or stress. Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman published a study in which participants completed a series of challenging, stress-inducing tasks.
The tasks weren’t super stressful—one, for example, involved following a moving target with your non-dominant hand, but not while directly looking at it, while looking at it in a mirror. Keeping track of that mirror reversal of left and right and moving things with your non-dominant hand is challenging enough to induce some stress.
If you performed this task, your heart rate would increase slightly. Once you finished the task, you’d probably take a deep breath and relax as your heart rate returned to normal.
If participants held a chopstick in their teeth, forcing that smile posture, the response of their heart to the stress was reduced; the time that it took the heart to return to baseline levels was also reduced.
When you find yourself in a stressful situation—when you feel your blood pressure starting to rise—you should smile. Making a smile—even a fake smile—will reduce that feeling of stress and might even be good for your heart health.
Other Benefits of Smiling
Similar studies have suggested that smiling boosts immune system function and that it even boosts the brain’s release of serotonin and endorphins. Serotonin is associated with feelings of satisfaction—satiation.
A lot of people describe themselves as stress eaters. They are very good at maintaining a healthy diet most of the time, but when a stressful situation hits, they head for the snacks.
Smiling—even fake smiling—will help with that in a direct way. It will reduce the cravings associated with that stress.
Therefore, if you want to elevate your mood, smile. Other studies have suggested, by the way, that this effect is not limited to facial expression.
If you make angry sounds, your anger will be increased. If you talk happy, it has a similar effect to making a smiling expression.
In short, your body has a powerful effect on your mood. Think of your body as an instrument, and you can use your senses to orchestrate your desired emotion.
Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.