Here’s What Happens to Your Brain When You Fake a Smile

May 27, 2016

Resting bitch face (RBF). The idea is downright insulting. But even though getting unwelcome suggestions from strangers to “smile” can quickly turn a neutral mood into an angsty one, going with the flow and upturning our lips might actually be a good thing.

Studies suggest there’s a lot more to our facial expressions than meets the eye. Case in point: Among multiple studies on the effects of botox on mental health, one from Cardiff University in Wales discovered in a small sample of 25 women that those who had botox, and a resulting inability to frown, reported feeling happier and less anxious than those who didn’t. (And no, it wasn’t necessarily because they were riding the high of getting cosmetic work done—they didn’t report feeling any more attractive after the procedure.)

In another study from Technical University of Munich, botox recipients were asked to try to make angry faces, which isn’t so easy with the numbing effects of the treatment at work. MRIs showed they had lower activity in the amygdala, hypothalamus, and parts of the brain stem—areas that process emotions and responses—than those who hadn’t gotten botox, and therefore could more easily frown and furrow their brows.

So yes, there does seem to be a link between facial muscles and mood. And even a fake smile actually can change the way we feel. In one study published in Psychological Science, researchers asked subjects to perform activities designed to raise their stress while holding one of three expressions: a neutral face, a regular smile, or a full-on ear-to-ear “Duchenne” smile (the kind that also engages the eyes). Afterwards, the participants’ heart rates were measured and those who “smiled” during the tasks recovered faster into a calm state than those who had neutral faces—and the ones who flashed the biggest ear-to-ear grins were the most relaxed of all.

Turns out facial expressions may trigger emotions from the memory that occurred when we’ve engaged those same muscles in similar ways in the past. In other words, smile, and your brain just might believe it.

However, constantly faking it can backfire. According to research by psychologists from Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Rochester, suppressing undesirable emotions may make us more prone to early death from heart disease and cancer. So, if you’re genuinely down in the dumps, of course, feel your true feelings. Just remember to practice letting them go.

But when you’re on autopilot and someone says to turn that frown upside-down, it might actually be beneficial to humor them. Think of it as a reminder to be mindful—this kind of awareness just might help summon your authentic smile more often, which wouldn’t be a bad thing. Need more inspiration? Two words: Chewbacca mom.

Photo credit: Alicia Cho

This article is related to:

Brain Health, Living, Tips

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Dana Poblete

Dana's love for all creatures under the sun (bugs, too) drives her in her advocacy for ethical eating, environmental sustainability, and cruelty-free living. A natural born islander, she surfs when she can, and writes, always.

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