The head of the Texas A&M University Psychology and Brain Sciences department has co-authored a paper finding that adopting a scowl can bring on anger — but even a “fake” smile can bring on a small dose of real happiness.

Heather Lench and two University of Tennessee professors employed a statistical technique known as meta-analysis to aggregate data from nearly 140 studies testing more than 11,000 worldwide participants. According to the meta-analysis, posing facial expressions — even when different from the emotion currently being experienced — has an impact on humans’ moods, Lench and her colleagues found.

“We don’t think, for example, that if you’re depressed, just keeping a smile pasted on your face is going to get you out of depression — it’s not that powerful of an effect,” Lench said with a laugh. “And our study overall doesn’t suggest that simply smiling more will make you an overall happier person. 

“What the study does show is that posing a facial expression can implement your state right now, in the moment. We don’t think this is the cure-all for unhappiness, but our facial expressions do impact how we feel.” 

Lench, now in her second decade working at Texas A&M, said her research has focused on emotions and their effects on people. 

“We know that when you feel an emotion, that also comes with an expression. Our internal experience of emotion can change our facial expressions,” Lench said. “But there was this proposal that it could work the other way — that just posing a facial expression could cause you to experience an emotion and change your internal state.”

Lench’s co-author, University of Tennessee professor Nicholas Coles, said that psychologists have disagreed about whether deliberate facial poses impact humans’ moods.

Lench said that a 1980s study in which participants were “forced” to smile by holding pencils in their mouths was the best known research study in the field. 

“They had one group of people hold a pen with their teeth, and that activates the same muscles that activate when you’re smiling,” Lench said. Another group of people, she said, held it with their lips, which prevents a smile. 

“What they found was that the people who were forced to pose smiling found cartoons funnier and experienced more self-reported happiness than people who held the pen with their lips,” she said. “The reason that had a big impact was that they weren’t telling people to look happy, but simply moving their faces without an awareness that they were supposed to look happy.”

Lench said that a large-scale 2016 study worked to replicate the initial study’s findings and that its teams of researchers were unable to do so. Lench, Coles and Larsen then employed meta-analysis to see if, in the aggregate, they could find an overall answer to a long-standing question. 

“We don’t think that people can ‘smile their way to happiness.’ But these findings are exciting because they provide a clue about how the mind and the body interact to shape our conscious experience of emotion,” Coles, the project’s lead researcher, said via an A&M statement.

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