Can facial expressions really alter our mood?

“Smile in the mirror. Do that every morning and you’ll start to see a big difference in your life”, said Yoko Ono, and she could be right according to research.

For years scientists have suggested that our facial expressions influence our emotions. If the theory is correct, we don’t just smile because we are happy; we are happy because we smile. Research spanning decades has tried to determine if this is true, with mixed results.

A review by Nicholas Coles a PhD student, from the University of Tennessee and colleagues spanning nearly 50 years worth of research provides the most robust evidence to date. Data were analysed from 138 studies and included over 11000 people worldwide. The results published in the journal Psychological Bulletin confirmed that facial expressions do indeed affect our emotions; scowling makes us unhappy and smiling makes us happy.

“A half century’s worth of experimental findings does provide considerable evidence that smiles, frowns, scowls and other facial movements can affect emotional experience in a variety of scenarios,” Coles concluded.

However, he doesn’t suggest grinning like a Cheshire cat all day.

“ We don’t think people can smile their way to happiness. But these findings are exciting because they provide a clue about how the mind and body interact to shape our conscious experience of emotion,” said Coles in an interview.

So what’s happening in the brain?

When we smile, muscles contract around the mouth and eyes, sending messages to the amygdala – a part of the brain that processes emotions – triggering a chemical reaction in the brain. The amygdala releases neurotransmitters associated with reducing stress and positive mood, such as dopamine, serotonin and endorphins.

Smiling could be a mechanism to boost our mental health. For example, putting on a smile may help change the mood in situations that aren’t enjoyable: trick the brain into believing you’re happy. In addition, smiling is contagious; turning the frown upside down has the power to not only lift your mood but the mood of other people too.


Coles.N.A. and Larsen.J.T. and Lench.H.C. (2019). A Meta-analysis of facial feedback literature: effects of facial feedback on emotional experience are small and variable. Psychological Bulletin,145, 6, 610-651. DOI: 10.1037/bul0000194

Source: University of Tennessee:

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