How a Smile Changes How You See the World

May 25, 2016 Katharina Lochner
image smiling people

How Do You Feel When You Smile?

Smile. Just briefly. How are you feeling? Good? Most likely it was the act of smiling that made you feel good. But, you might ask yourself, is a smile not the expression of the emotion, so the emotion is there first and then the smile? Research suggests that it can work both ways.

The finding that our facial expressions change the way we feel is not entirely new.

In the 19th century psychologist William James presented this idea, and it has been constantly backed up by research. For example, Simone Schall and James D. Laird from Clark University, Worcester, US, found that when candidates produced facial expressions and postures associated with happiness, sadness, or anger, they really felt these emotions, and the effect became greater the more they had practised. But facial expression does not only change how we feel, it also changes how we see the world.

There is one famous study by Fritz Strack, Leonard L. Martin, and Sabine Stepper from the University of Mannheim, Germany where they made candidates hold a pen in their mouth in such a way that it made them either smile or frown and had them rate how funny they found cartoons that were presented to them. Those who were “forced” to smile found the cartoons funnier than those who were “forced” to frown.

An article by cognitive neuroscientist and science writer Christian Jarrett in the New York Magazine outlines these studies and a few more; and it presents a recent study that took the idea even one step further: A smile makes us perceive other people’s emotions more positively. In the study, Alejandra Sel from the University of London and her colleagues measured candidates’ electroencephalogram (EEG) while they were looking at photos showing people with positive vs. neutral facial expressions. Based on the EEG patterns the researchers come to the conclusion that our own facial expression impacts how we perceive other people’s emotions. When we express positive emotions ourselves we perceive others to be happy even if their facial expression is neutral.

Thus a smile makes us perceive the world and the people around us in a more positive way. What does this mean practically? When we smile we may be happier because the whole world seems to be happier. However, when we want to be more objective in our perceptions (to the extent that a human can be really neutral) we might want to put on a neutral expression. A smile changes how you see the world!


Schall, S. & Laird, J. D. (2003). Keep smiling: Enduring effects of facial expressions and postures on emotional experience and memory. Cognition and Emotion, 17(5), 787-797.

Sel, A., Calvo-Merino, B., Tuettenberg, S., & Forster, B. (2015). When you smile, the world smiles at you: ERP evidence for self-expression effects on face processing. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 10(10), 1316-1322.

Strack, F., Martin, L. L., & Stepper, S. (1988). Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: A nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54(5), 768-777.

About the Author

Katharina Lochner

Dr Katharina Lochner is the former research director for the cut-e Group which was acquired by Aon in 2017. Katharina is now a researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Iserlohn, Germany. In her role at cut-e, she applied the research in organizational and work psychology to real-world assessment practice. She has a strong expertise in the construction and evaluation of online psychometric tools.

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