For some reason, certain people feel it is their obligation to tell others, usually women, to smile. Clearly, this is problematic for many reasons, but as someone on the receiving end of those comments pretty frequently, I especially hate when people attempt to use science to try and convince me to put on a happy face.
The exchange usually goes something like this:
Random intrusive person: Hey, you should smile!
Me: No, thank you.
RIP: If you don’t feel like smiling that’s even more of a reason to do it! Did you know that just by smiling – even if you’re faking it – it’ll make you feel happier?
Me: [Some combination of side eye or a serious eye roll.]
These aggressive smile-pushers are usually unwittingly referring to a 1988 study which found that people who were forced to smile (by way of holding a pen between their teeth) thought that cartoons were funnier than did those who had to hold a pen between their lips (making their face appear sour or pouty).
We won’t even get into the limitations of that study or the many subsequent research projects replicating it, but needless to say, somehow this idea that forcing yourself to smile would make you happier caught on.
So this morning, when I read the results of a study that looked into 50 years of data on this subject – including more than 300 experiments – I smiled for real.
After conducting that meta-analysis, the researchers found that if smiling does, in fact, make you happier, it’s only by a little bit. Specifically, their findings suggest that if 100 people smiled and everything else among them was equal, only seven might expect to feel happier.
One possible explanation for the studies that did find a correlation between smiling and happiness is that there are different types of smiles, Paula Niedenthal Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the U.S. who was not involved in the research told NPR. There are sarcastic smiles, smirks, grins and pure happiness-inspired beams, and they all can indicate different emotions, she explained.
The other major finding of the new study is that while smiling (if you’re feeling it) is fine, forcing yourself to smile can actually have a negative impact on how you feel. In fact, another recent study found that people working in the service industry who have to plaster on a fake smile at work have a greater risk of drinking heavily when they get off their shift.
Things that have a better chance of boosting your happiness
Unlike forcing yourself to smile, there are strategies that will actually help boost your happiness. These include spending time outside, living near a library, spending money to reclaim your time, practicing gratitude, exercising, sleeping well and several other methods far more effective than fake smiling.
You can also try the 4Cs: connecting with others, contributing to society, coping with setbacks and cooking healthy food for yourself.
The bottom line is, manipulating the muscles in your face probably won’t make you happy, and please, please stop telling other people to smile.