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Smiling makes others happy even if you’re sad, study shows

Smile and the world really does smile back, according to new research
Smile and the world really does smile back, according to new research - SolStock

Smile, and the world really does smile with you, scientists have found.

Experiments using electrical stimulation to spark smiles – even when the participant was not feeling cheerful – showed that just the physical act of grinning makes people around seem happier.

The study led by Dr Sebastian Korb, from the department of psychology at the University of Essex, shows that even a brief weak smile makes the faces of strangers appear more joyful.

“The finding that a controlled, brief and weak activation of facial muscles can literally create the illusion of happiness in an otherwise neutral or even slightly sad-looking face, is ground breaking,” said Dr Korb.

“It is relevant for theoretical debates about the role of facial feedback in emotion perception and has potential for future clinical applications.”

The trials by the University of Exeter were based on work by Charles Darwin who would often show his guests photographs of people whose faces were being electrically stimulated and ask them to describe the emotion being displayed.

Those images were produced by the French physician Duchenne de Boulogne who applied an electric current to various muscles in the faces of subjects, causing them to contort into different expressions and photographed the results.

Darwin believed there were universal emotions which could be conveyed through facial expressions and published drawings of Duchenne’s work in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals – his third major work on evolution.

Perception of happiness

For the study, 47 subjects had a small voltage applied to their face using electrodes which stimulated the muscles into a smile.

They were shown digital avatars and asked to assess whether they looked happy or sad. In half the trials, smiling muscles were activated at the onset of the face.

The team found that producing a weak smile for 500 milliseconds was enough to induce the perception of happiness.

The research may point towards future treatment for depression or other disorders which impact expression, such as Parkinson’s disease and autism.

“In the future, however, we hope to apply this technique to explore facial emotion recognition, for people with conditions like Parkinson’s, who are known to have reduced spontaneous facial mimicry and impaired facial emotion recognition,” said Dr Korb.

“Moreover, we have published guidelines to allow other researchers to safely start using electrical facial muscle stimulation.”

The research was published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.