Smiling Can Make You Feel Rotten

If a genuine smile tells the brain you’re happy, a fake smile tells the brain you’re not–then makes you feel worse.

Smiling Can Make You Feel Rotten
[Image: Smile faces via Shutterstock]

There’s a common belief that smiling not only reflects happiness but can actively produce it. The sayings “put on a happy face” and “turn that frown upside down” suggest as much. There’s sound logic to the idea: Our brains often take cues from our bodies, so smiling might help us believe we’re feeling happy. There’s some good science behind it, too; researchers have found people who force a smile recover more quickly from stress than those who don’t.


The problem with telling someone to put on a happy face is that smiling means different things to different people. Many cultures use a smile to mask negative emotion rather than display positive ones: embarrassment for the British, sadness for the Russians, anger for the Japanese. The celebrated facial researcher Paul Ekman has identified at least at least 18 types of smiles–only one of which, known as the Duchenne smile, reflects genuine happiness.

Worse, turning a frown upside down has the potential to backfire and make you feel rotten. If a true smile tells the brain you’re happy, then smiling to hide a bad feeling should tell the brain that you’re not. “People who feel they smile because they’re always trying to manage their mood–and fake it, essentially–are going to feel much worse,” Aparna Labroo, a psychologist at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, tells Co.Design.

Labroo and some collaborators recently put this possibility to the test. They recruited 108 test participants and measured where those people fell on a “smile-theory” spectrum. At one end were those who believe that people smile because they’re actually happy; at the other were those who think that people smile to fake it. On two separate surveys, given two weeks apart, the test participants also reported how often they smiled that day, and their general well-being.

The question was simple: What happens when people who don’t associate smiling with happiness go ahead and grin anyway? The answer should give any cheerleader, retail store greeter, or happiness guru pause. It turns out smiling was only connected with greater well-being among people who believed that a smile reflected genuine happiness. Those who felt that smiles reflected fake happiness felt worse after smiling a lot.

“If you are the kind of person who smiles more often when you’re trying to improve your mood, then it must signal to you that you’re actually not feeling good,” says Labroo.

Don’t despair if that rings true for you. It might not even matter what kind of person you typically are. Labroo and colleagues found, in a subsequent experiment, that a person’s “smiling theory” can be manipulated with relative ease. For this follow-up, the researchers split 81 test participants into two groups. One group was told that people smile to show they’re happy, and was asked to recall a time they had smiled from joy. The other group was told that people smile to feel happy, and was asked to name a time they had faked it. With one theory or the other planted in their minds, the participants then took part in a facial exercise. Some bit down repeatedly on a pen, forming a pretty genuine smile. Others put the pen between their lips, not their teeth, forming a more neutral expression.

Modest as it was, the manipulation worked. The people who were told that smiles reflect true happiness reported feeling happier after the smile exercise than the non-smile exercise. And those who were told that smiles are fakes reported less happiness after the smile facial exercise. Simply put: Don’t fake-smile, because it can make you feel worse. (These findings will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.)


“Telling people to fake it until they make it, at least as far as their mood is concerned, might be something that actually makes them miserable,” says Labroo. “So sometimes it may be better to let them resolve their negative feelings.”

From a marketing and design perspective, the lesson here is that a smile doesn’t necessarily convey a positive association between consumer and brand. Building that connection around a smile–as Walmart did before switching logos to a sunburst–could have the opposite effect with people who tend to see smiles as fakes. Of course, plenty of people still get a warm feeling from putting on a happy face–but plenty of others just see it as putting on.

About the author

Eric Jaffe is an editor at CityLab, where he writes about transportation, history, and behavioral science, among other topics, through the lens of urban life. He's also the author of The King's Best Highway (2010) and A Curious Madness (2014).