If you smile at life, life will smile back (but not much) | Health and well-being

“Sometimes joy is the source of your smile, and sometimes a smile is the source of your joy,” said Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh. “Smile at life and life will smile back at you,” reads some of the posters of Mr Wonderful, the geek positivism company par excellence. “You can’t stop people from being right for the wrong reasons,” defended Arthur Koestler when he was criticized for agreeing with the Nazis in his criticism of Stalin.

Positive psychology, adapting ancient philosophical teachings in self-help books or turning all kinds of motivational phrases into sales, is part of a huge job. The idea that getting up in the morning with the desire to eat the world will make you snack in the afternoon has great prestige, and one of the foundations of this life philosophy is the power of a smile. If you smile, even against your will, life and your neighbors will be kinder to you.

In academic psychology, which tries to separate reality from illusion and which strives to be right for the right reasons, the possibility that activating some facial muscles can produce an emotional reaction has been studied with the greatest seriousness for decades. The so-called facial feedback hypothesis was already proposed by Charles Darwin in 1872 when he said that the outward expression of an emotion “intensifies” or that “even the simulation of an emotion causes that emotion to awaken in our mind.” William James, one of the fathers of psychology, asserted at the same time that, contrary to the popular belief that experiencing an emotion leads to the creation of a physical expression such as smiling or crying, the opposite would rather happen. We would feel sad because we cry, and we would not cry because we are sad. James, a fanatical believer in the will, believed that if one refused to express a feeling, that feeling died.

Now, overcoming a decades-long controversy, an international team of researchers has shown that, although not necessarily for the right reasons, Buddhist monks and Mr. Wonderful posters have a point. A mechanical smile improves the mood, even if only a little.

In a paper published in the journal Nature Human behavior it was explained how different tests were used to examine the possibility that smiling affects our mood. On the one hand, experiments were conducted in which the participants were aware that they were smiling, bringing the corner of their lips closer to their ears, or looking at photos of smiling people and imitating them. But they also tried to find out if the unconscious muscle movement typical of smiling has emotional effects. This is achieved with a classic experiment that has had controversial results over the years. Volunteers unconsciously force a smile by biting a pencil or make a sad face by trying to hold it in with their lips, a gesture that makes them frown.

After analyzing data from 3,878 participants in 19 countries, the authors, led by Nicholas Coles from Stanford University (USA), noticed that both those who imitated smiles in photos and those who forced it themselves noticed a certain increase in your happiness. However, those who smiled with the help of a pencil did not experience this emotion. “This study shows that we have to be aware of smiling to have this effect of making us happy because we create a smile,” explains José Antonio Hinojosa, professor at the Complutense University of Madrid and co-author of the study.

“What we saw is that smiling slightly improves mood, increases the level of happiness, but it’s an effect similar to seeing pictures of puppies or babies,” says Pedro Montoro, a researcher at the National University of Distance Education (UNED). .), in Madrid, who also signs the study. “The scale we use is from one to seven, and the values ​​are slightly above three. This is a statistically significant increase, but it seems to most authors that it would not be useful as a therapy”, he continues.

The authors confirm that the facial feedback hypothesis makes sense and are inclined to think that there is a two-way relationship, when someone is happy, they smile, but it is also “interesting to see that there is a feedback effect from the muscular to the subjective. sensation,” Montoro points out. Nicholas Coles also points out that, at least in part, “the conscious experience of emotion must be based on bodily sensations.” To some extent we are sad because we cry and happy because we smile. Coles believes that this type of study is necessary to gain an in-depth understanding of the nature of something as essential to humanity as emotions, but that knowledge is still in its infancy. As we move forward, it will be necessary to continue to manage emotions, hoping to get it right, even if we don’t get it right for the right reasons.

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