These days, most people accept that if you smile you will feel better. It’s scientifically proven. Well, yes and no. It’s been a theory for a long time, one which was supported by a classic experiment, but in 2016 17 teams trying to reproduce the results of that experiment couldn’t do it. It seemed that maybe there was nothing to this idea.However, a new study looks at all the data and comes out in favor of smiling when you’re down. It can have a small but clear impact on your mood.

Two people smiling, playing with a garden hose.

The Origins of the Theory

Why did we start to imagine that just smiling could make us happy? Most people trace the theory back to Charles Darwin, who believed in something called the facial feedback theory of emotions. Basically, he believed that emotions don’t just radiate out from the brain, they’re partly built on feedback from other body systems, including the facial muscles. In this theory, something stimulates us to smile, which could be a sensation of happiness or some other stimulus. When we smile, the brain gets feedback from the facial muscles, and realizes, “If I’m smiling, I must be happy.”

Note that facial feedback is only one component of the whole system of happiness, so it doesn’t stand alone, it just reinforces feelings of happiness. Many studies built on this theory seem to hold up, so it’s been a favorite among psychologists and biologists for more than a century.

Until the case for it all seemed to collapse in 2016.

Replicating a Landmark Study

The study that seemed best to support the facial feedback theory used a clever way to get people to smile without knowing they were smiling. That way, they were less likely to foul up the results. People were asked to look at comics while holding a pen in their mouth. The pen forced them to put their muscles into a smiling position, without any of the emotional stimulation. The study showed that when people were holding a pen, they were more likely to respond positively to the cartoon than when they didn’t have the pen in. But when the 17 research teams couldn’t duplicate this result, it left us unsure what to think about the theory.

To resolve the question, researchers from the University of Tennessee and Texas A & M compiled all the data they could find on this question and performed a comprehensive analysis. By looking at 138 studies, they were able to illuminate the subtle distinctions that the individual studies couldn’t.

The result: smiling does improve your mood. It’s a small effect, and it’s highly variable, but it’s real. Researchers could even figure out more details. The effect is bigger when people smile for no reason, the effect is smaller when paired with otherwise positive stimuli, such as looking at a comic. But different stimuli interacted with the effect in different ways. For example, just smiling when reading had a bigger effect than just smiling while looking at a picture.

How Do You Feel about Smiling?

On the other hand, for some people the effect might be completely overwhelmed by the fact that you might feel very self-conscious about your teeth. If that’s the case, smiling or being asked to smile (especially for a picture) can actually make you feel worse.

Fortunately, you aren’t stuck with your smile. Cosmetic dentistry can give you the power to change your smile until you’re happy with it and proud to share it.

Would you like to learn how cosmetic dentistry can help you get a smile that truly makes you happy? Please call (858) 271-1010 today for an appointment with Scripps Ranch cosmetic dentist Dr. Ramin Goshtasbi at Oasis Dental Arts today.