When You Smile, It Changes How You See Others

Smiling changes how the brain processes other people's emotions. As the Louis Armstrong song goes, "When you're smilin', the whole world smiles at you."

Christian Jarrett from NYMag writes that when we smile, we feel joy. Many scientific studies, dating back to the 19th century, have linked the act of turning up the corners of our mouths to that fuzzy feeling known as happiness.


A (small) recent study, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, seeks to contribute to this body of research on smiling. The premise of this study, however, explores how smiling changes how we process other people's emotions.

The researchers hooked up to 25 participants to an EEG (electroencephalography) to record their brainwaves as they looked at photographs of faces. The images either showed people smiling or with a neutral expression on their face.

The researchers focused in on a part of the EEG measurements that related to when we tend to process new faces. These spikes in activity are typically more pronounced when shown faces with big emotional expressions, compared to more neutral ones.

As expected, when the participants had neutral expressions while looking at the photographs, the researchers found that the brain signatures spiked when they viewed happy faces compared to neutral ones. But when the participants were smiling while they looked at the photographs, their brain waves showed that the participants processed neutral faces as smiling faces. So, as the song by Louis Armstrong goes, “When you're smilin', the whole world smiles at you.”

The researchers conclude:

"We provide novel evidence that one’s own emotional expression acts as a top-down influence modulating low-level neural encoding during facial perception."

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, has spent a lot of time studying happiness. She says that habits play a big role in paving the way to happiness. Smiling seems like a simple enough habit, so it might be good to pencil in a smiling session in the middle of your day, or set a reminder before a party or presentation to smile:

Read more about the science of smiling at NYMag.

Photo Credit: Aikawa Ke / Flickr

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