Many people have heard that forcing a smile can make you actually feel happier. That idea originated from an experiment conducted in 1988, under psychologist Fritz Strack. But a recent study published in the scientific journal Perspectives on Psychological Science that attempted to replicate Strack’s experiment found little to no correlation between forced smiling and actually feeling happier.
The original experiment involved participants rating the humor of several cartoons in the series “The Far Side” while mimicking a smile or a frown using a pen. Holding the pen between the teeth forces a smile, while holding it between the lips forces a frown. The people who forced a smile rated the cartoons as funnier. The replicated experiment used almost the same elements as the original one, but was conducted in 17 labs on 1,894 participants. The lead researcher, Eric-Jan Wagenmakers of the University of Amsterdam, reported that several cartoons from “The Far Side” were tested on people not involved in the experiment to ensure that they were moderately funny. The researchers also created a video explaining the instructions to the participants and recorded the experiment to ensure that only participants who correctly held their pens were part of the recorded data. Some labs even specifically weeded out psychology students as participants for fear that they would know the purpose of the experiment and be influenced before they started. Despite all the precautions the researchers made, they failed to find a statistically reliable correlation between the faked smiles and how funny the participants found the cartoons.
Strack has published an article titled Reflection on the Smiling Registered Replication Report criticizing the way the replicate experiment was conducted in comparison with the way his experiment was carried out. There are inevitable differences, he claims, such as the difference in the way people view how humorous the cartoons are 20 years after their publication. Also, the use of cameras could have made some participants self-conscious, which could have affected their emotional state. All these inconsistencies within the two experiments could have destroyed the appearance of a very subtle effect.
For now, Strack is working with researchers in Israel to discover exactly how much the cameras affected the results of the replicate experiment. However, he dismisses the absolute relevance of the replicated experiment in proving whether body movements affect mood, saying that results from one-time experiments are more important. In any case, the distention between the proponents and cynics of the smiling theory has created sufficient doubt that it is actually true. Whether smiling is in fact a placebo for true happiness or not, it never hurts to try grinning more often!
Edited by: Karen Yung and Ruby Halfacre