Fake a Smile: Can Facial Expressions Change Your Mood?

Fake a Smile: Can Facial Expressions Change Your Mood?

Hey everyone! I hope you are keeping well inside your homes and managing to find some moments of joy amongst the madness. Have you ever been told to smile to cheer yourself up? At the time, it is probably one of the most annoying and insensitive things a person can say to another who is genuinely down, but is there a scientific backing for what they are saying? I sort out to see if putting a smile on your face really could improve your mood.

Our moods are very much a state of mind influenced by our biology and our environment. Some days you can feel extremely happy for no apparent reason whereas other, a small irritation, like running out of your favourite tea, can put you in a horrendous headspace. In the brain, moods don’t have specific regions operating them – sadly there is no happy region we can just switch on – but we understand that levels and release of specific chemicals in certain brain regions can contribute towards certain feelings, like reports low serotonin is linked to negative moods, and alterations to brain networks are thought to underly some severe mood disorders like depression. Essentially, mood is a lot more complex than a single feeling!

The environment we place ourselves in can impact how we feel (you are much more likely to be relaxed on the beach than on a packed subway carriage) but also there have been links between feeling ‘good’ and moving our bodies. Muscle movement like running have been shown to improve mood. But what about if we move much smaller muscles in a more subtle way, like curling your lip or furrowing your brow? Your face is a muscle-clad machine, with our multitude of expressions being the result of the contraction and relaxation of over 40 muscles. Although you may feel like your face has a mind of its own, these muscles are nearly all under control of a single nerve called the facial nerve. This nerve innovates almost every look from your smile to your scowl, and its roots lie in the brain stem which can be stimulated by many regions of your ‘higher’ brain region. Therefore, your spontaneous grin or flash of disgust is operated either consciously or subconsciously by your brain.

Although the control of your facial expressions by the facial nerve is well-characterised, it is less well understood if your facial expressions can open a line of communication with your brain and alter its activity. In other words, if you force a smile, is your brain able to receive a signal that associates that smile with being happy & alter your mood? This theory is called the ‘Facial Feedback Hypothesis’, and suggests that the expression you display on your face can provide your brain with the direction to adjust your mood according to the associated emotion. The validity of this theory has been debated for over 100 years, and recent research continues to contribute to both sides of the argument. A large review of over 100 studies and articles on the subject of facial feedback impacting mood concluded that the overall effect, both positive and negative, of facial expressions on mood was about 20%. This figure was calculated through comparing individuals self-reported feelings across many different studies and suggests our expressions could have a small impact on our mood.

From the review, a few interesting relationships between expression and mood were assessed. Firstly, when looking at whether facial expressions could initiate or moderate mood (aka create a new mood or adjust the mood you are currently in), the analysis results suggest facial expressions have more of an impact on an individuals mood when no emotional stimuli is present. Even though this effect was still relatively small (32% reporting alteration), it provides favour for the idea facial expression have more of an impact on initiation a new mood than altering an existing one. When looking at specific expressions and their impact on mood, collective studies reported no “stand out” expression-to-emotion impact however some did appear to have a small effect on a persons reported feelings. These included reports linking facial expressions to feelings of happiness (23% reporting alteration), sadness (30%) anger (53%) and disgust (29%). However, the overall effects of more broadly reporting feeling positive (18%) vs negative (12%) after moving the face in specific ways did not differ significantly from each other or reporting no change at all.

Together, this work suggests that your facial expression could have a small effect over your mood, hinting there is a potential biological mechanism between the movement of your face and your brain activity. However, with ’self-reporting’ studies, it is much harder to deduce real relationships as you are relying on an individuals own honest assessment of their feelings. Some of the limitations to these studies include false reporting, impacts of age & gender and the awareness of the artificial set-up (video recording/expectation to give a certain answer), and such factors can impact results. For us to really understand if facial expressions can influence mood, we need a full understanding of the biology of our feelings and the experimentally measure if any of the chemicals or processes involved are consistently and significantly impacted by a frown or smile.

During this tough time, it can be hard to be positive. But try to find the things you are grateful for and test putting on a smile – see if you experience any change in mood!

Julia xoxox (@Julia.ravey.science)

The review used to write this article can be found here plus catch more science on my YouTube!

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