Does Smiling Really Make People Feel Happier?

a man forcing a smile
Twitter / netdegerleme

For years, we’ve been told that smiling, even when you don’t feel happy, is a surefire way to boost mood. Smile your way to happiness, we hear all the time. The concept dates all the way back to Charles Darwin, who was one of the first to suggest the idea that facial expressions can affect moods.

But recent research indicates that the “facial feedback” correlation might not be as strong as previously thought. The study, which was led by social psychology Ph.D. candidate Nick Coles of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, reviewed 50 years of research that included more than 300 experiments.

Researchers found that if 100 people smiled, just seven could expect to experience a boost in mood. The other 93 people did not feel any different than if they hadn’t smiled at all.

The study also sought to find out whether other facial expressions, including negative ones such as frowning, could impact mood. In all cases, “the effects were extremely tiny,” says Cole.

In fact, although smiling is in no way “harmful,” some researchers believe that forcing your face into a smiling expression can actually have a negative effect. One example of this can be seen in a recent study of service workers who are forced to smile constantly as part of their jobs. The study discovered that these people were more likely to drink heavily once their shifts were over.

While more research is needed, there might be enough evidence to indicate that we stop telling others to smile when they appear glum. As Cole quipped, “I know when I’m sad and people tell me to smile, it just makes me more angry.”