Turn that frown upside down: the power of smiling for mental health

While musicians and pop stars have long sung about the power of a smile, now research from the University of South Australia (UniSA) has confirmed that smiling can have mental health benefits.

The study, published in Experimental Psychology, evaluated the impact of a covert smile on the perception of face and body expressions. In both scenarios, a smile was induced by participants holding a pen between their teeth, forcing their facial muscles to replicate the movement of a smile.

The research found that facial muscular activity not only alters the recognition of facial expressions but also body expressions, with both generating more positive emotions.

“When your muscles say you’re happy, you’re more likely to see the world around you in a positive way,” says lead researcher and human and artificial cognition expert, UniSA’s Dr Fernando Marmolejo-Ramos.

“In our research we found that when you forcefully practice smiling, it stimulates the amygdala – the emotional centre of the brain – which releases neurotransmitters to encourage an emotionally positive state.

“For mental health, this has interesting implications. If we can trick the brain into perceiving stimuli as ‘happy’, then we can potentially use this mechanism to help boost mental health.”

These results are timely, because with everything going on at the moment with the second wave of Covid-19 and the Stage 4 lockdown measures in Victoria, if the simple act of smiling can boost mental health, it’s time to put a smile on that dial – even if you might not feel like it, initially.

“A ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ approach could have more credit than we expect,” adds Dr Marmolejo-Ramos.

To read the study, visit: econtent.hogrefe.com/doi/10.1027/1618-3169/a000470

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