Years ago I came across the idea that just the physical act of smiling can trick your brain into happiness. The notion itself is pseudo-paradoxical… It’s one thing to be hoodwinked by a third party (Santa Clause isn’t real? Subway’s footlong isn’t really 12 inches? That Nigerian prince won’t email me back?) – but to be hoodwinked by yourself? Can you really trick you even though you know you’re tricking you?
According to science – yes. And it has to do with this notion of a mind-body connection which Chuck Darwin was among the first to posit: specifically, that a physiological act caused by an emotional experience also has a direct impact on (rather than just being a result of) that emotional experience. Or to put it simply: that your expression can directly affect your emotion.
Here’s how smiling works. You’re happy. Your cerebral cortex (basically your brain’s CPU) sends that emotional data in the form of neuronal signals (think 0s and 1s, but the happy kind) to a deeper part of your brain called your brainstem (your brain’s autopilot for stuff like breathing) which then triggers activity in 2 facial muscles: the zygomatic major (which is in the cheek) and the orbicularis oculi (which encircles the eye socket). Boom! You smile.
What Chuck and others essentially postulate is that the reverse is also true: that the physical act of smiling can also trigger the release of those happy 0s and 1s in your brain to make you happier. It’s basically a feedback loop or a virtuous cycle. And there’s lots of research to back it up. (There are some naysayers too of course, presumably not smiling).
A 2009 study in Germany even used Botox to prove Chuck right. Scientists asked subjects to frown and then scanned their brains before and after a Botox injection. They found that there was “reduced feedback” to the brain’s emotional CPU post-Botox (or less of those angry 0s and 1s).
The bottom line?
Most of us want a reason to smile more. And if the science of tricking your brain into happiness isn’t reason enough – perhaps Santa Clause or a Subway footlong or that email from a Nigerian prince might do the trick…