Smile – and feel better

Try holding a pencil between your teeth, in such a way that the pencil doesn’t touch your lips. This forces your face into something that looks like a smile. Years ago, experimenters found that people holding a pencil in this way rated cartoons as funnier than they did without the pencil. The conclusion was that smiling makes us feel happier, even when the smile is fake.

Later attempts to replicate the experiment did not back up the results, but Fritz Strack, one of the original experimenters, discovered the reason why.  Later experimenters videoed their subjects, and the self-consciousness of being filmed doing something silly cancelled out the positive effect.

Now try holding a pencil between your lips, in such a way that it does not touch your teeth. This forms your expression into a frown. In a later experiment, subjects were told to hold the pencil in one of these two positions, while a story was read to them. Afterwards, they were asked what they remembered of the story. People with the forced smile tended to remember the happier parts of the story, while people with the forced frown remembered the sadder parts. This tells us that not only our mood, but also our memory is affected by our facial expression. When we smile, we tend to remember happier things, whereas a miserable expression will remind us of past misfortunes.

All of this shows that we have more control over our mood than we probably realise. One study showed that the pencil exercise can improve mood for up to two days! So – smile until you feel better. Or maybe set up your day by holding a pencil between your teeth while you get ready for work in the morning. Just make sure nobody’s filming it!

Stephanie Hills ©


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