Research Reveals New Insight Into Why Smiles Are So Contagious

By Alice Clifford

Smile and the whole world really does smile with you, suggests a new study. Posing with a cheesy grin for selfies and social media posts can actually help cheer people up, according to the findings.

One theory to explain the discovery is that our emotions can be caused by sensations in the body, such as a rising heartbeat causing fear or excitement. Scientists say it is the same with smiling – with the sensation of a grin evoking happiness within.

“The stretch of a smile can make people feel happy, and the furrowed brow can make people feel angry; thus, the conscious experience of emotion must be at least partially based on bodily sensations,” said lead author Dr. Nicholas Coles, a research scientist at Stanford University.

Coles and his team first analyzed previous studies and identified evidence that supported the concept that smiling can in fact make you happier. He then joined forces with other scientists to create a new experiment under the name, “The Many Smiles Collaboration.”

The researchers studied 3,878 people from 19 countries, with participants split into three equal groups. In each, half looked at cheerful images of puppies, kittens, flowers, and fireworks, and the other half looked at a blank screen.

When looking at these images, one group was told to put a pen in their mouth to mimic the act of smiling, another group had to copy the facial expression of photos of smiling actors, and the final group was told to move the corners of their lips towards their ears and lift their cheeks using only the muscles in their face.

When this task was done, they were shown the images and blank screen again, but were told to keep a neutral facial expression. After each test, the participants rated how happy they were feeling. To disguise their goal, researchers mixed in several other small tasks to keep the participants from knowing the true aim of the experiment.

The data they collected revealed that there was a significant increase in happiness from participants mimicking smiling photos or pulling their mouth to their ears. These results show that there is strong evidence that posed smiles can, in fact, make us happier. However, they did not find a strong mood change in those using the pen-in-mouth technique.

“The effect wasn’t as reliable with the pen-in-mouth condition. We’re not sure why,” Coles said. “Going into the study, we assumed that all three techniques created the correct muscular configuration for an expression of happiness. But we found some evidence that the pen-in-mouth condition may not be actually creating an expression that closely resembles smiling.”

Group of friends laughing together.

The researchers believe this could be due to the amount of teeth clenching needed, which isn’t usually normal in a genuine smile. Over time, numerous studies have been done that both disprove and prove this theory. Previous research revealed that the pen in the mouth technique did work, as people carrying out this task found a series of comics funnier when they were holding a pen in their teeth.

Yet other research, such as a study conducted by 17 different labs in 2016, tried and failed to replicate these results, creating doubt around the theory. “Over the past few years, science has taken one step back and a few steps forward. But now we’re closer than ever to understanding a fundamental part of the human condition: emotion,” Coles said.

“We experience emotions so often that we forget to marvel at just how incredible this ability is. But without emotion, there’s no pain or pleasure, no suffering or bliss, and no tragedy or glory in the human condition. This research tells us something fundamentally important about how this emotional experience works.”

The study was published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

Produced in association with SWNS Talker.

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