Smiling really can make people feel happier, according to researchers at the University of Tennessee (UT) and Texas A&M University who examined nearly 50 years of data testing whether facial expressions can lead people to feel the emotions related to those expressions.
“Conventional wisdom tells us that we can feel a little happier if we simply smile. Or that we can get ourselves in a more serious mood if we scowl,” said Nicholas Coles, a PhD student in social psychology at UT and lead researcher. “But psychologists have actually disagreed about this idea for over 100 years.”
These disagreements became more pronounced in 2016, when 17 teams of researchers failed to replicate a well-known experiment demonstrating that the physical act of smiling can make people feel happier.
“Some studies have not found evidence that facial expressions can influence emotional feelings,” said Coles. “But we can’t focus on the results of any one study. Psychologists have been testing this idea since the early 1970s, so we wanted to look at all the evidence.”
Using meta-analysis, the researchers combined data from 138 studies testing more than 11,000 participants from around the world and found that facial expressions have a small impact on feelings. For example, smiling makes people feel happier, scowling makes them feel angrier, and frowning makes them feel sadder.
“We don’t think that people can smile their way to happiness,” said Coles. “But these findings are exciting because they provide a clue about how the mind and the body interact to shape our conscious experience of emotion. We still have a lot to learn about these facial feedback effects, but this meta-analysis put us a little closer to understanding how emotions work.”