Can Smiling Make you Happy? - an exploration of Facial Feedback Hypothesis

Aditi Rastogi

30th September, 2020

“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy”

 

This quote by Thich Nhat Hanh, aptly explains the concept of the facial feedback hypothesis. What if I were to tell you that, the facial expressions you made, actually affects the emotions you experience? Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? So, if you continue to smile for a prolonged time, for no apparent reason, then would that make you feel happy? Yes, that’s the gist! Facial feedback explains as to why you felt a little cheered up when you were required to laugh out loud, as an activity! This indicates that facial expressions and eliciting emotions can go both ways. To put it differently, the emotional experience can influence facial expressions and likewise, facial expressions can be responsible for emotion elicitation. 

The concept of facial feedback dates back to Charles Darwin and William James. Darwin was the first to propose that expressions can intensify emotional experiences whereas, suppressing facial reaction might lead to a feeble experience of affect (emotion). James in his theory of emotions states that the bodily changes after the perception of stimuli are responsible for emotion generation (McIntosh, D. N. (1996). Facial feedback hypotheses: Evidence, implications, and directions. Motivation and Emotion, 20(2), 121–147. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02253868). The crux of it is that the feedback from the facial expressions, a form of nonverbal communication, affects the emotional experience and behavior.

While there have been many controversies regarding this concept, but the box of scores in favor of it is unquestionably greater than those pointing against it. Mainly 3 types of procedures were used which were indicative of facial feedback. Some experiments directly stated to the participants to make an emotionally pertinent expression, others asked for specific muscles to be contracted while some researchers adopted a more interesting approach, by giving participants a task which required them to contract facial muscles but did not have any emotional cues. All of the procedures saw changes in self-reported moods, corresponding to the expressions formed. However, contrary to this some studies have also suggested the visceral feedback may, in fact, be a more accurate explanation of the emotional experiences than the facial feedback (Facial-Feedback Hypothesis—IResearchNet. (2016, January 10). Psychology. http://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/emotions/facial-feedback-hypothesis/)

Many theorists took different approaches to the facial feedback hypothesis, creating different versions of it. One perspective is the necessity hypothesis, which says that facial feedback is essential for an emotional experience. Another, the sufficient hypothesis claims that emotionally relevant facial expressions can commence an emotional experience, whereas the modulation hypothesis believes, that facial expressions can alter the ongoing emotional experience. The most suited version as the most claim is the modulating hypothesis (Andréasson, P. (2010). Emotional Empathy, Facial Reactions, and Facial Feedback. http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-126825).

Now the question arises as to how does this phenomenon works? As of now, we haven’t found the exact answer to this question, but the speculations and assumptions continue to exist. Tomkins suggests that it is the cutaneous sensations which are responsible for feedback, while Gellhorn stated that muscle contraction supplied this feedback. Laird proposed self-perception as a mechanism of facial feedback, suggesting that physiological arousal and facial expression both are required in emotional self-attribution. Others such as McIntosh, Zajonc stated that the changes in brain temperature explained the regulation of emotional experiences. While many answers are given to its functioning, the heart of it is that the sensory feedback, arising from facial muscles or skin, is the underlying mechanism of the hypothesis. 

According to Andréasson in Emotional Empathy, Facial Reactions, and Facial Feedback (http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-126825), the function of facial feedback can be seen in two aspects, inter and intra-personal level. In the  inter-personal aspect, it is seen that facial feedback may also be involved in influencing other’s emotional experiences which happen through mimicking, resulting in emotional contagion. We tend to mimic facial expressions. This happens unconsciously. When we mimic it is seen that individuals also experience the corresponding emotions. The emotional contagion and facial feedback work together to create a resonance, which aids in attachment between parent and child. At the intra-personal level, it is seen that emotional reactions and facial feedback go hand in hand, both being important for the emotional process. 

I wouldn’t say that this concept of facial feedback is flawless. Many controversies exist regarding this. Some researchers have claimed it as false, stating that the studies done earlier, did not give the same results when replicated (November 03, S. P., & 2016. (n.d.). Turns Out, Faking a Smile Might Not Make You Happier After All. Livescience.Com. Retrieved September 12, 2020, from https://www.livescience.com/56740-facial-feedback-hypothesis-fails-in-replication-attempt.html). Thus, discrepancies in the opinions and results do put the facial feedback hypothesis in a tough spot.

 

Uncertainties concerning this persist, but a huge number of studies have also pointed out in a favorable direction. In a nutshell, I would say that facial feedback still requires some work on it. In fact, to some extent, you can judge for yourself, if this works for you. Try making an expression, preferably, a happy one. After all, we all could use some happiness in this pandemic. See if smiling works out for you! 

About the Author

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Aditi Rastogi, is currently majoring in the field of psychology, exploring and trying to keep up with the newer ventures of psychology. Apart from this she likes to unwind through reading books with a cup of coffee.